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Lifelong Unlearning

Trevor Pateman


My University Library contains hundreds of modern books - mostly shelved as Psychology - which have the word 'Learning' in their titles; it has just one which uses the word 'Unlearning': Julia Penelope's Speaking Freely: Unlearning the lies of the fathers' tongues. This is hardly surprising. People who live in acquisitive societies will tend to write books about how to acquire things, not how to get rid of them, and this is what academic psychologists have done - as a matter of their subject's routines, of course, not of conscious ideology . That said to avoid the trap of conspiracy theory,the rhetoric of learning psychology is often transparent enough to ideological deconstruction. Learning theorists, for example, concern themselves with things they call acquisition and retention, but never with giving away or expulsion. Learning theorists are hoarders rather than wasters.

But there are books in the Library, even modern books, which are in fact if not in title about unlearning. They are shelved under Psychoanalysis and Religion, but aren't conceptualised as confrontations with learning theories or their ideology.

What I would like to do in this essay is order some of the ways in which we unlearn things, and stress the importance of the fact that we do unlearn, so that a start can be made on restraining the imperial ambitions of learning theory - ambitions to colonise the mind succinctly expressed in the phrase 'Lifelong Learning'. It is a classic case of Producer Capture: those with a vested interest in Learning (principally teachers) have encouraged us to forget Unlearning as the other half of the dialectic of cognitive life.


The essays I write are sometimes rejected by academic journals on the grounds that they read too much like the texts of informal talks. This is high praise to me, but since it is not so to others, I will begin this paper with something suitably formal. This is aimed at bringing the domain of learning theories and the domain of unlearning theory (still to be constructed) into strictly symmetrical relationship.

A learning theory is concerned with the ways - presumably more than one - in which a person or subject, S, who at a point in time does not know how to do something x or that something p is the case, gets to a state at a later time where they do know how to x or that p is the case. So S moves, for example, from not knowing how to speak a first or a second language to knowing how do so or moves from not knowing the Kings and Queens of England to knowing that thing.

An unlearning theory is concerned with the ways in which a person or subject, S, who at a point in time does know how to do something x or that something p is the case gets to a state at a later time when they do not know how to x or that p is the case. So S moves, for example, from knowing how to speak a first or second language to not knowing how to do so or moves from knowing the Kings and Queens of England to not knowing that thing

Before anyone knows what is happening, philosophers at this point will often indicate that the word 'know' is being used generically to subsume 'believe' (or vice versa), and I now make that indication.


You may well have understood this little bit of formalism (now over and done with) by generating an example of a way in which unlearning occurs, and I would not be surprised if the example generated was that of forgetting. In any case, forgetting is my opening example of a way in which we unlearn something. There is a lot to be said about it, and here I aim to be no more than informal and suggestive.

Teachers (and those, like politicians, who think for teachers) are pleased when you learn something very well, and having learnt it really well is evidenced by not forgetting it - ideally, not forgetting it ever. If we taught children their tables properly, then they would never - barring natural disasters like Alzheimer's - forget them. And they would have a teacher to thank for that.

Learning is good, and should allow us to feel good; forgetting is bad, and ought to make us feel bad.

I want to say that this attitude is irrational, even in the domain of what we learn in school.

Consider for example why it is that metric measurement is making such slow progress in the United Kingdom. It is simply that people know their Imperial measurements so well that they will not and cannot forget them. They are both proud of what they know, and able to use it fairly effortlessly. As a result, Eurocomputation is a lot farther off than the Euro. It will have to wait for the long run, when we are all dead. Had our school system been less good at instilling our crazy measurement system, we would have been able to forget it the more readily, and move on to deploy something more useful. As it is, we live in a society full of people proud of knowing how many furlongs there are in a mile, and totally unwilling to forget it. It's a terrible state to be in.

Interestingly, when it comes to the conduct of our personal lives, the virtues of forgetting are much more often commended, and the fact that forgetting is rooted in attitude widely recognised. We can choose to forget things, and are often encouraged to do so: Forget it! is standard advice to the aggrieved. Imagine trying that on people committed to maintaining fourteen pounds to the stone.

In our personal lives, it is a fault to refuse to forgive and forget. In our political lives, too, where we realise that it is memory which maintains conflicts - like those in Northern Ireland - well beyond their rational lives.

Likewise, in our cognitive lives our memories - what we know - is often an obstacle to engaging with the world around us. It is a commonplace that what we see is often influenced by what we think there is to see, and if that is true, then that might be taken as an argument for thinking less and with less conviction. We should carry our knowledge lightly, and always be ready to let go of it.

Such ideas, interestingly, have had at least one pedagogical embodiment, in the practices of modernist visual arts education - broadly, that practised or inspired by the Bauhaus. If, for example, you get right-handed students to draw with their left, you deny them use of what they already know how to do in a more-or-less routinised way. Coming from a very different background, the cognitive scientist, David Marr, argued some years ago now (Marr 1982) that the serious work of visual artists involves them in unlearning the routines of habitualised seeing and regressing from 3-D to what he called two and a half D vision. That was what Cezanne was trying to achieve in the endless repainting of Mont St Victoire, learning in order to forget and forgetting in order to learn.


Forgetting is one of the ways in which we end up not knowing what once we did know. It is a term which covers both the means employed and the result: by doing forgetting (as the ethnomethodologists might put it) we end up having forgotten.

When what we know has an institutional context - as with religious or political beliefs - forgetting often takes the form of lapsing. We become a lapsed Catholic or lapsed member of the Labour Party. Here a loss of interest (a withdrawal of libidinal energy) initially disconnects us from certain routine practices, such as going to Church or party meetings, and may eventually result in our forgetting the doctrines to which we were committed - and forgetting perhaps in not so very different a way as we might forget a foreign language as a result of never practising (in) it. Lapsing seems to be temporally bounded: when enough years have elapsed, you cease to be a lapsed member of the Labour Party and become instead someone who was once a member of the Labour Party. This linguistically marked shift recognises that a real change in the state of one's relations to the object has occurred. Disenchantment, loss of fascination, disinvestment are processes which end in full separation from the object.

Outside such obviously institutional contexts as churches and parties, there are other kinds of lapsing. Ones reading in a subject or author can lapse. This is often depicted negatively, as when we regret not keeping up with the literature in such-and-such a field. But lapsing can have its own positive dynamic. Indeed, my sense of what it is to lead an intellectual life makes me say that it ought to involve a great deal of lapsing. This claim needs a bit of contextualisation and justification.

Though I am quite conventionally admiring of those who manage to remain monogamous for long marital lives, I despair a bit over people who stay with the same ideas, the same theories, the same subjects, throughout their intellectual lives. Often enough, it seems that they are living off what they banked in their academic youth. They are failing to move on and out. But moving on is what the intellectual life is about; it is what makes it an adventure rather than an entrenchment. This is not (though it could be) an apology for diletanntism - for what the Utopian socialist Charles Fourier called the butterfly passion. No more than an artist starts with a style or a writer starts with a voice, but rather they have to achieve these things, so an intellectual life does not start with a vision but rather has to achieve one. And it is achievable only through movement, not through the reiteration of what one read in one's youth. (When, for example, I did know What Marx Said, because I read it fairly conscientiously. Now I have lapsed and I no longer know. That is how it should be).

What is potentially shocking in this, I suppose, is the lack of reverence it displays. But though ones treatment of people ought to be careful ( so we believe, though we largely exempt children from the duty of care), ones treatment of ideas, theories, books, ought to be careless. They are there for us to use, that's all. There is no harm in lapsing, no harm in not keeping up with every last jot and tittle that so-and-so wrote.


But relatively painless forgetting and lapsing are not always possible.Some things can only be got rid of by more obviously expulsive acts, those of rejection and repudiation. People leave churches and parties by storming out on them, turning angrily on them, kicking up a great deal of dust which routinely finds its way onto publishers' lists for a season or two. Sometimes, you can only get rid of something by purging yourself. This is, of course, a traumatic way of unlearning from which there are no immediate gains: no new knowledge automatically replaces that repudiated and more or less rapidly unlearnt.

Rejection and repudiation often enough leave us wondering whether unlearning has really occurred in someone. Sometimes it seems that the person remains attached, at some level, to the ideas or the individuals they have superficially rejected. This suspicion is confirmed when people return to the fold or return to their partners. In other words, some rejections and repudiations are cases of what Freud called negation (Die Verneinung). And negation is not a form of unlearning, simply a denial of what one knows and feels, though it may be intended to bring about unlearning - bring about a state in which one really does not know or feel the thing denied.


In some ways less traumatic than rejection and repudiation is the much-studied phenomenon of conversion, where we move rapidly from knowing one set of things to knowing another but incompatible set without any obvious intervening period or process of unlearning. In our personal lives, the equivalent might be the person who moves easily and quickly out of one happy or unhappy relationship into another equally happy or unhappy one, but with a different person. This defies our sense that between the two there ought to be a period of mourning - a period in which one loosens the old attachment before going on to form a new one. (Within psychoanalysis, the obvious reference point is to Freud's 'Mourning and Melancholia') . This sense of how mourning ought to procede may also give us some insight into conversion. For if the person who moves out of one relationship and straight into another is sometimes accurately described as incapable of mourning, so the same might be said of the enthusiastic convert. Just as one lacks the ability to be without a partner, so the other lacks the ability to be without a set of guiding beliefs. Just as one cannot tolerate being alone, so the other cannot tolerate being ignorant. In my view, ability to be alone and to be ignorant are absolutely central not only to personal life but to intellectual life - a case argued at length in Anthony Storr's interesting book Solitude. (1997). So as a mode of unlearning, I give conversion low marks, and I commend those (starting in the West with Socrates: see Pateman 1999) who have shown us the value of the state of not-knowing, the state of ignorance.


That state might also be characterised as one of openness to new insights, to new knowledge. It is a resistance to closure. What in the West has come to be called metaphysics is now only doable in the space marked out by such resistance. I'll elaborate a bit on this.

A fairly conventional view has it that the domain of science (physics) comprises everything where we are fairly clear what the questions are, how to go about answering them (the question of method), and what counts as a (good) answer. When Freud claimed in The Interpretation of Dreams that dreams were the 'royal road' to the unconscious he was, among other things, strengthening his claim to be bringing the unconscious mind into the domain of science by identifying a sound method for answering the questions we might have about it.

The domain of metaphysics, on this conventional view, then comprises everything where we are unclear what the questions are, how to answer them, and what on earth is to count as a good answer. Artists and philosophers of art have often enough made the claim that art can provide a method for metaphysics, perhaps more assured than the prayer and meditation historically privileged in the major religions. While differing in this way, artists and believers might agree - and, I think, would be right to agree - that the success of their methods cannot be willed, anymore than you can will cleverness or originality. It is a matter of luck or grace - depending on whether your vision is secular or religious - whether through art or prayer or meditation you come up with something which begins to focus a metaphysical question or begins to provide the glimmerings of a metaphysical answer. The results cannot be guaranteed, and if sought for too hard, may elude us even more decisively. You cannot - on this view and for example - sit down to write Metaphysical Poems. That would be to confuse method and result. You can only sit down to write poems, and it is not for you as their author to declare that they are some metaphysical lager illuminating the parts which other arts cannot reach. That is for your readers and the future to feel and judge. The aims of metaphysics are, by definition, vaulting - to get some hold on ultimate questions and answers. But those aims compel it to humility in its methods. The will to power , manifest in the example I have given as the drive to control the results of one's artistic efforts, is an insuperable obstacle to actually achieving the outcomes desired. If art is indeed the method of metaphysics, then a successful poem will illuminate some dark corner of our existence, whether we will it or not. But unlike rhubarb, poetry cannot be forced. When it is forced the poem itself is drowned out by the histrionics, the sophistry, of the poet. We find ourselves listening to the poet's neurosis and not to intimations of the unconscious or the divine.

Thanks in large measure to Plato's Socrates, the Western intellectual tradition is anti-sophistical. Freud belongs to that tradition insofar as he recognised and insisted that in neurosis it is often enough by our own sophistry that we deceive ourselves. We thereby deprive ourselves of such insights as are actually within our ordinary human capacities to achieve. Instead, we are blinded by the rhetoric of empty words.


Closely related to conversion, but actually distinct (as Duncan Barford persuaded me), is the epiphany which is causally effective in switching us from one set of beliefs to another. The epiphany only works because some inner preparatory work has already been done - some doubt or dissatisfaction already exists, some inkling that we are looking at things or going at things the wrong way. Sometimes there may be no more than a sense of something missing. Epiphanies are sometimes big events in people's lives, switching a believer from one religion to another, or switching a scientist from one theory to another. Equally, they can be quite modest events, the kind of things teachers may have read about in romantic educational theory and can hope for in the classroom: events which suddenly capture a child's interest and lead it into a sustained engagement with something quite new.

Epiphanies could be better understood, but get neglected outside of writings on religion, perhaps because they cannot be predicted or controlled. A teacher can hope for them but not engineer them. They enable fast-track unlearning and learning and for that we should be more grateful and interested than we are.

That I have used the word 'switching' to write about epiphanies suggests that they also have something in common with the switches studied in Gestalt psychology, which should not be thought of simply through their paradigm exemplars of two-dimensional drawings.

For example, a switch is often involved in solving low-level practical problems. When I was a child, both raspberries and strawberries could be hulled - the central plug could be pulled out by pulling on the stalk. For strawberries, this is no longer true: modern varieties are grown for longer shelf-life and a non-pullable plug assists this. Pulling on the stalk, you simply make a mess and for a long time that is what I did. Then I realised that the thing to do is to treat a modern strawberry like a carrot: you have to slice off the top. This solves the problem of removing a stalk attached to an unpullable plug. It's hardly an epiphany, but it is a switch in which an old way of going about things had to be unlearnt.


There is a sort of opposite to the epiphany which consists in unpicking one's route until one locates the source of an error. Like Ariadne, we go back along the way we have travelled. It is a common enough way of finding a mistake in a mathematical calculation, but occurs more widely. It is obviously less dramatic in its manifestations than conversion or epiphany, but ought not for that be neglected as a way of unlearning. There is nothing which says a priori that unlearning has to be an unmethodical business, even if as a matter of fact it often is.

A lot of psychotherapists would be happy to say that their work consists in assisting people to unlearn habitual ways of going about things, and this will involve going over real-life examples of personal history, almost as if they were mathematical problems in which a mistake has somewhere been made. Sometimes part of the therapist's work is to give a name to the defective strategy being used by the client, and Eric Berne's popular book Games People Play names dozens of such strategies. Common sense had already named many - Cutting off one's nose to spite one's face; Dog in a manger; Crying Wolf! and so on and so forth.

In other words, one might say that the method of Ariadne is one which is interested in diagnosis as well as cure. If we are asked, 'Where do you think you went wrong?' the question demands reflexive attention to a precise step-by-step description of what we did which ended up with us getting it wrong. The question is motivated by the belief that the way we went wrong will itself prove to be significant - part of a repetitive pattern, perhaps, whether in the way we do maths or the way we lead our lives. So if we say (for example). 'Well, I went wrong when I conceded rather than holding my ground' , it is easy for the therapist to follow with the question, 'Do you often do that?' - which almost seems to provoke a positive reponse. The therapeutic task is then conceived as in some sense laying bare the misguided character of the patient's habitual strategy, and in finding a way to enable them in future to avoid tying the knot in which they have habitually tied themselves. The therapeutic aim is to bring about a certain kind of unlearning by means of careful unravelling. (At this point, I remember that R D Laing once wrote a little book called Knots).


The gentleness of Ariadne's method of unlearning may seem sometimes too cautious, too liable to result in merely piecemeal repairs of cognitive structures. It does not go to the root of things; does not tear up and start over again. There is a more radical method which asserts the value of the blank sheet, the value of sweeping away the past, and starting over from the ground up; in a slogan, 'I destroy and I build'. (Destruam et Aedificabo).

The worlds of education and psychology , as well as of politics and religion, have always known radicals who want to knock you (or it) down before they build you (or it) up again. And not all of them are mad megalomaniacs, though some (like Dr Kellogg, if we believe the film) have been.

Among the psychotherapies, there are those which tell the therapist not to be satisfied until you have cried or screamed or admitted to depraved lusts. This is common enough knowledge for it to make sense in the recent film Good Will Hunting to have a therapist whose coup de theatre is to make his patient cry; once he has done that, his job is all but over: something the film does not need to elaborate on. Would that it were that simple.

The paradigm, however, for such destroy and build approaches may well be putting someone through Cold Turkey. In the case of addictions, this may be the most effective - perhaps the only effective - approach to unlearning, an approach which aims at what one might call total unlearning.

The inherent danger is that the patient goes totally to pieces: so Cold Turkey is a route to unlearning on which one must be massively supported. Hence, the structure of such organisations as Alcoholics Anonymous.


Cold Turkey as a process undergone voluntarily as a cure is another traumatic form of unlearning, of which one more variant remans to be listed and briefly discussed. This is the unlearning brought about under compulsion, by the imposition of sanctions which may escalate all the way to bodily torture. This is the much studied phenomenon of brainwashing.

The origin of all punishment-induced unlearning is to be found in schools, which world-wide for most of their existence have operated on the principle that error can be beaten out of children. Aversion therapies are merely a minor variant on this venerable tradition, of which Pavlov provides the most obvious modern avatar. But it is a tradition which raises issues far too large and complex for me to explore in this short study. I simply list punishment-induced unlearning as a type which has to be considered in any complete coverage of my topic.


By way of conclusion, I want to bring into focus two recurrent motifs of this essay. First of all, I have in many places indicated that we always stand in an emotional relationship to what we know or believe. Knowledge and belief are not 'cold'. This means that our feelings can act to enable or frustrate both our learning and our unlearning. The psychologist's chapter on 'Motivation' could be greatly enriched - indeed, replaced - from the many chapters in psychoanalysis on our affective relations to our objects, including such inanimate objects as our knowledge, ideas, theories, beliefs, hunches, commitments and values. Already, common sense provides us with an entry into understanding this affective relationship to our knowledge when it allows us to speak of being proud of our learning, jealous of our knowledge, insecure in our beliefs, tired of our own ideas, confident of our rightness, unwilling to concede we might be wrong, keen to know more, hesitant in applying what we know. This short list is readily expanded.

Second, I have at various points likened our relationship to ideas to our relationships with people. Everyday metaphors recognise the parallelism: we can be wedded to our ideas, be intellectual bully-boys, have a love-affair with Freud, and so on. Insofar as psychoanalysis has vastly extended our understanding of personal relationships, it can also extend our understanding of our cognitive relationships. We might then be able to see, for example, that the lure of Credit Accumulation is not so very different from an invitation to marry someone for their money. Except, of course, that the money in this instance is our own.

In terms of its own content, this essay is about Debit Accumulation, about how to lose rather than how to gain. It is about what we once knew but now no longer do. It has offered a typology of the ways in which we may cease to know and believe, sometimes finding something to replace what is given up (as in conversion), sometimes not (as in forgetting). It has also suggested some merits to what, appropriating a phrase, we might call, generically, losing it. The architect Mies van der Rohe once came up with the memorable slogan 'Less is more'. (Hughes 1980, p. 168). My proposal is that such minimalism has a part to play in our cognitive life. We shouldn't worry too much about feeling that we know less than we once did, or about long periods of doubt and uncertainty in which we feel ignorant and unable to come up with quick answers. The painter Mark Rothko liked to remark, 'Silence is so accurate'. (Breslin 1993, p 306). I think this is a phrase worth remembering confronted with the brash politician or the even brasher academic who can put a spin on everything, who has an instant diagnosis and a cure for all ills. Such quack doctors should remind us always to pray for a full word and a cautious tongue.


I would like to thank Duncan Barford and Robin Morris for their encouragement and help


Berne, E (1968 ) Games People Play Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (originally 1964)

Breslin, J (1993) Mark Rothko. A Biography. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Freud, S (1974 ) The Interpretation of Dreams. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. (German original 1900)

Freud (1984a) 'Mourning and Melancholia', in On Metapsychology, pp 245 -268. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. (German original 1917)

Freud, S ( 1984b) 'Negation' in On Metapsychology, pp 435 -442. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. (German original 1925)

Hughes, R (1980) The Shock of the New. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Laing, R D (19 ) Knots. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

Marr, D (1982) Vision. San Francisco: W H Freeman

Pateman, T (1999) 'Psychoanalysis and Socratic Education' , in S. Appel, ed., Psychoanalysis and Pedagogy, pp 45 - 51. Auckland, Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Penelope, J (1990 ) Speaking Freely: unlearning the lies of the fathers' tongues. New York: Pergamon.

Storr, A (1997 ) Solitude London: Chatto and Windus (First published 1988 under the title The School of Genius).

1997. Published 2002 as "Lifelong Unlearning", in D.Barford, ed., The Ship of Thought. Essays on Psychoanalysis and Learning, pp. 212-223, London: Karnac Books