Cosmos Café [2021-06-24]: Does "Bildung" have a future?

One notion that foregrounded itself during our reading of Henri Bortoft’s The Wholeness of Nature was that of Bildung, a fascinatingly rich and polysemous German verbal noun, which is apparently trying to find its way into English. Though perhaps most often translated merely as “education”, that’s perhaps the least of its color. And although the Nobel-prize laureate Mr. Dylan sang about it over half-a-century ago, it is nowadays obvious to the least casual observer that “the times, they are a-changin’” … maybe even more so now than then. How we – as individuals and as a species – are going to come to terms with these changes (or not!), depends a lot on how we will learn and act while realizing the future. And as Paul Valery once noted, “The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”

The purpose of this get-together is to explore, not just the notion of Bildung – that’s just a possible springboard – but also the consequences of what the notion might imply. It gives us the chance to free ourselves from many preconceived notions, assumptions and presuppositions which keep getting in our way, because we don’t recognize the givenness of our (perhaps overused) English words. The hermeneuticist Hans-Georg Gadamer informed us that “All understanding is understanding differently”, and a different understanding can lead not only toward a different way of thinking, but more importantly to different ways of being, and even more important still, new ways of acting in the world. This promises to be a rich opportunity to sift, sort, reflect, and imagine.

Reading / Watching / Listening

Seed Questions

  • How do you understand the notion of Bildung? How does it compare/contrast with your understanding of “education”? Do you think the notion can help us overcome (or at least identify and clarify) some of the obstacles we will have to overcome in realizing the future?

  • What are your thoughts on the connections between Bildung and the notion of selfhood (i.e., “I-sense”)? Might this be a fruitful starting point for our conversation? What role do you think our humanness (or being human) plays in all of this?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics


Thanks, Ed, for sponsoring this initiative and doing so in such a timely manner. I especially like the links to past Cafe episodes. Clearly, we already have a rich tradition to draw from that comes from our own direct experience. This is perhaps a delicate empiricism operating at the cultural level? I am encouraged that our group can reflect upon its own values, beliefs, and identity. Articulating an ‘I’ that is ‘We’ will encourage the best in our tradition, a tradition that feedforwards into a New Axial Age .


Yes, thank you, Ed. This feels like a polysemous start: Many directions we can go from here, yet I believe we now have a sense of direction and movement. Just to make an observation, and ask a question, which may be too obvious, but is probably better gotten out of the way at the outset: I am curious about the relationship between the German word Bildung and the English building—is that just a fluke? Or does it reflect the strong constructive connotations of the German?

Bildung sounds like a more active notion than a ‘education’ one would receive. The more active pole of ‘education’ in English would, I think, be learning, or perhaps, as Lisa put it in Bortoft session 7, learning to learn. I am reminded as well of Heidegger’s later essay, translated as “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which reflects on the interrelationships between these terms (in place and thought) as such.

So that is one question on the semantics of Bildung, but here is one on substance: As education is often regarded as a humanistic endeavor, in what ways does Nature already do what we’re trying to do? And what could we learn from Nature as we continue learning how to learn, and learn about ourselves as humans (in the fractal patterning of individual and species)?

I offer this video as an example of culture in action. It is an excerpt from a longer program which we watched as a family a few months ago, which was part of a process of education, as well as entertainment (aka TV night). And I wonder if there is model here for where we might be going with these conversations, and how we’ll get there.


Etymologically, they are not really related. The German word can be traced back to an Old High German verb bilidon which meant “to form, to pattern” but also “to design”; by the 9th century it was being used more or less non-physically when it meant, among other things, also “to imitate”. The English word hearkens back to the Middle English bilden which meant “to build a house” (much more physical). It edged out the more common Old English timbran (from which we get our modern-day word “timber”). But, it was never strictly limited to house construction, as the following quote points out:

In the United States, this verb is used with much more latitude than in England. There, as Fennimore Cooper puts it, everything is BUILT. The priest BUILDS up a flock; the speculator a fortune; the lawyer a reputation; the landlord a town; and the tailor, as in England, BUILDS up a suit of clothes. A fire is BUILT instead of made, and the expression is even extended to individuals, to be BUILT being used with the meaning of formed. [Farmer, “Slang and Its Analogues,” 1890]

So there is the loose connection between the two verbs in the sense of forming and organizing and bringing something into manifestation, but obviously in the meantime they have taken on quite different connotations.

The endings – “-ing” in English; “ung” in German – sound somewhat analogous to English ears (but we should remember that English is classified as a Germanic language: it was Germanic tribes from Central Europe, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, who invaded what is now known as the British Isles and subdued or drove back the Celts and Picts who were living there). Since we use that “-ing” ending to form gerunds, i.e., the noun forms of verbs (even though we can use the full infinitive, e.g., “to run is fun”), we get a feeling of action, of movement with these. This is no doubt reinforced by the fact that we all have, in addition to our six standard tenses (present, present perfect; past, past perfect; future, future perfect) six so-called progressive or continuous tenses as well (e.g., present continuous, present perfect continuous, etc.), which, I can assure you, besides English spelling, bedevil the dickens out of foreign learners of our mother tongue. There is a world of difference between “They shop.” and “They are shopping.” This is a subtlety of English that is very difficult for foreign learners to grasp because in their native languages, the literal translations of those phrases would be the same (though chances are very good that they would idiomatically express them differently).

But, I do agree, the word Bildung just feels more active than “education” (although, it too is derived from a verb, educo, “I pull out”), but like many Latin nouns, even the verb-based ones, they seem to ossify once they’re nominalized … a general complaint of many about Latin, it would seem. Bildung is what one does, not necessarily what one allows to happen to oneself. Having said that, though, if you look at the state of education in Germany today – which is still called Bildung, there’s not much active about it.

So, that’s one contribution to the semantics of Bildung. I have some thoughts on the other – substantial – question you raise, but that will have to wait till tomorrow, I’m afraid. The European Soccer Championship is kicking off this evening, so I’m a bit pressed for time. But, as MacArthur once aptly phrased it, “I shall return.”

However, I can say at least this much for the moment, as it is my own, personal, probably foundational, position on the subject: we humans (and I suspect our animal cousins and vegetable forebears) cannot not learn; or stated differently: learning is what living creatures do. Life learns. Of course, that doesn’t answer your questions, but it describes best where I’ll be coming from in the discussion.


This Question reminds me of Alan Watts:

Alan Watts Secret to Life
Is Learning,Education Or Play a Beginning-End Response to Your Question?


Thanks for the philological clarification, Ed. I suspected the words building and Bildung might indeed have different roots—though I think the sense of an increasing intensity of constructive formation in “building” does resonate (if only be ‘accident’) with the sense of what I’ll call (as I imagine others have as well) self-cultivation, as the gestalt impression I get from the various ways that English translations attempt to convey Bildung.

Here I don’t mean “self-” merely in the reflexive mode, but as the subject-object, as it were: SELF-cultivation. Could we interpret as the whole endeavor and practice of cultivating selfhood (and especially, a self that can participate in culture [Kultur?]) as the object of Bildung?

By selfhood, I mean: the whole ensemble of ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing that constitutes an I-sense, including a personal narrative and moral compass; knowledge acquired and technical abilities; creative powers and capacities of the will; a trained attunement to nature and the world—this ensemble giving rise to the qualities of uniquely self-realizing human beings. Education (in the narrow sense) may be one aspect of cultivating a self…but not the only one. However, we might also be able to expand the meaning of education if we approach it creatively and intensively enough.

Do you think I’m on the right track with this notion? And if so, I would ask, does the Cultivated Self have a future? Or is it being eclipsed by other modes of selfhood, for example, the Connected Self…the Virtual Self…the Manufactured Self…the Bubble Self (floating in a Foam of other other cell/selves). Does the notion of Bildung continue to hold sway only where there is a cultivated (and perhaps outmoded) notion of humanism in play? (Play?!) Or is it compatible with forms of transhumanism (through which some foresee the future human) in its spiritual, technological, or integral (ala Aurobindo) versions?

What do others think is the object or end-goal of Bildung (or ‘education’ contemplated in a wider, deeper sense) Inquiring minds want to know!


If Bildung does/must/should have an object, “cultivating selfhood” is certainly a worthy one. As I said concerning “learning” in my previous post, dovetailing off your insightful description of “self” here, I would say, analogously, that “cultivating selfhood” is something we humans cannot not do. It is what we do, and it is the by-product of not being able not to learn. This is all part and parcel of that other notion you so elegantly folded in to the conversation, Kultur/culture (the result (?) of cultivating … be it the soil, our relationships with others, and everything else involved in how we, as humans, organize our belonging together (and I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which of those words, à la Bortoft/Heidegger, may properly be emphasized)). And since notions are sliding into this conversation anyway, let me add that it should be obvious by now that “experience” is one that we will sooner or later have to deal with as well. In English, of course, we only have one word for the phenomenon and have to adjectivally modify it in varying contexts; the Germans have two primary words for it (which will be familiar to Gebser readers,so I’ll add the Barstad translations here), namely Erlebnis ("lived experience) and Erfahrung (“undergone experience”). But we need not get sidetracked here; the topic will come up again, I am sure.

To my mind, then, “education” (generally speaking) could be thought of (though not exclusively) as a means of describing a way of organizing experience, the impacts of which are the cultivation of selfhood (that I-sense of which you speak) and “otherhood” (if I may coin a word describing our relationships with other selves) and our with-one-another (i.e., culture/Kultur).

Now, I believe that we all pretty much agree that all living creatures experience, hence all living creatures learn; what is more all living creatures “remember” (have some manifestation of what we call “memory”), and that all living creatures “share” (to varying degrees) their experiences with other living creatures, especially of their own kind, but indirectly, at a minimum, with others. And I think we would all pretty much agree that we wouldn’t necessarily describe those ways of being as “education”. In other words, I agree we need to “creatively and interestingly” expand our understanding of “education”, but we also need to be aware of the innate humanness of what we talking about.

And before I’m too badly misunderstood: I am not making a case here for human exceptionalism or superiority or anything of the kind. There are some aspects of our (human) being-in-the-world that we do not share with our animal cousins or vegetable forebears. We’re just different from them in some ways and I don’t think it’s helpful to ignore that or blur the lines of distinction (not separation) between us. But I also believe that those differences (of distinction) obligate. We are aware of the differences, we can be conscious of the distinctions, we do know that we organizing our lives in very human-specific ways, and consequently we have what I like to call responsibility: responsibility for everything we do, and responsibility to everyone and everyother and everything we impact by our doings. That’s simply part of the burden, if you will, of what it means to have shown up on the planet in this here and now as a human being.

And so, yes, Marco, I do think you are on the right track with your notions of “education” and “selfhood” and “cultivation”. For me, these are rich and fruitful points of departure for our sensing, feeling, thinking, and imagining our way toward a deeper understanding of our doings in the world. I see this conversation as bringing together a lot of topics, issues, and themes that have been being kicked (ha-ha: present perfect continuous! how English-language of me) around this platform for some time now and placing them in a broader, deeper, richer context. It has a nice touch of essentiality for me.


I FEEL a Ensemble PLAYING:


Bildung is such a beautiful word. I am enjoying the exploration. Das Bild means Image or even portrait/picture. I feel the word as a forming of the self through education. The word itself feels like a Gestalt.


Thanks for adding your voice, Andrea, to the chorus. And when the word feels like a Gestalt is there anything else about “the word feels”?


Thanks for the question, John. The word Bildung feels/ resonates in my being the way the Divine resonates, with softness, beauty and wholeness vs the hardness of the words education and God.


This seems to move in the Direction your
words are traveling? Thank U


In Support of this Thread:


Thank you for your reply, Andrea. I am struck by this semantic nuance you introduce—the suggestion that Bildung involves moving / growing / building towards an image of the whole. Perhaps: the self as a whole.

I also appreciate the sensitivity you bring to the softness or hardness of these words. There is something important about the way words feel which influences what they mean and how they mean it.


AH YES! The Energy of Words, a learning I am Still Finding a GIFT
with Response-Ability & Creativity!


Jan Zwicky said she became a philosopher because she loved the way the word philosophy sounds. I think there is something true about that. I, too, like that word- has a soft, round, open, liquid, warm, soothing quality.


Thanks Ed for starting this thread (didn’t realize it started…) and future sessions.

Since my psyche was educationally traumatized in the German context (and was later further also as a teacher) I’m hesitant in praising the word ‘Bildung’. It is associated with the verb ‘bilden’ which means ‘forming’, ‘moulding’, ‘shaping’, ‘designing’, etc. But who or what is supposed to be formed? In the German (more or less subconscious) collective the answer is unequivocal: it is the children’s mind conceived as a white canvas on which a picture must be painted (“Bild”) or an inert piece of clay that must be crafted like a pot by a top-down adult-centered (more or less authoritarian) guidance (teacher, parent, authority) by cramming in their heads a mountain of concepts and training them to learn in a mechanistic way. What my conditioned reflex associates with this word is the idea of a coercitive system (das “Bildungssystem” is just the stinky normal schools system) that leaves no freedom for self-expression, the opposite of cultivating selfhood. Somewhat better would be “Selbstbildung” as “Self-cultivation”, but again, that’s precisely not what Bildung is in the daily lived reality. IMO, the translation that best fits the present state of affairs in Germany for Bildung is “drilling”. Thus, I still prefer the word “education” because at least it implicitly assumes that there is something in the child’s mind/soul, a potential with inherent skills and that one can “draw out” (e-ducere), ideally by a “self-education”, without trying to superimpose one’s own preconceived ideas.


As we say in the United Nazi States: Bildung, baby, Bildung!



And I can certainly sympathize with your reservations. One difference between the two of us and the others in the discussion is that they have a certain “distance” to the notion that we, because of our direct involvement in it do not. I find it interesting that we find a certain attraction, however, in the Latin root of the word “education”, to which we then also obtain the distance necessary for a, let us say, more romantic appreciation. I particularly like that your critique remains fully within the metaphorical boundaries that the German word establishes. As Yogurt (the satirical pendant to Yoda from “Star Wars”) says in “Spaceballs”, “Everything has an upside and a downside.” Thank you kindly for reminding us of that.

Having said that, however, it is nevertheless easy to see how a different notionality can get us to also shift our thinking about certain phenomena and processes, get us out of our habitual ruts of mentation, if you will, be it the German Bildung or the Latin educare. And that’s where we looking to go, I would think. Still, it is beneficial to be reminded of potential pitfalls along the way.

And even that may not be a strong enough word. As I see it, what we’re wrestling with here is what is being wrestled with in many places worldwide. I think there is a general, perhaps global, general dissatisfaction with “education” at the moment. There are many who like to maintain that we (arrogantly, of course, in most cases referring to we “Westerners” – I can’t speak to any other attitudes) are living in the “best educated societies” that have ever been on the planet. My immediate counter to that is the corrective: perhaps the “best schooled societies”. I see little that qualifies as “education” (or Bildung, for that matter, at least insofar as I like to think I understand the notions) anywhere. There are, of course, small pockets of resistance here and there.

A good part of our challenge is to figure out how we feel and what we think about it all, to be sure, and to identify and find like-intended individuals and groups to engender a much-needed and (again) long-overdue shift.


Indeed. Even though sometimes the choice of the right words matters, I don’t know how much it could be useful to ruminate on nomenclature and meanings here. At the end of the day if you prefer Bildung instead of education or whatever expression I’m fine with it. The question is what kind of education/Bildung/learning/ etc. do we perceive as the right one? Is there a right one or are there many? Why is there this dissatisfaction? What worked and does no longer work? Should we just push the reset button or may we throw out the baby with the dirty water? What kind of new educational (Bildungs-)systems/structures should be created? What could be the alternatives? Do we have to reinvent the wheel or are there already viable models out there?

I believe that I once answered to these points clearly with the essay discussed a couple of years ago and we could move on to others who tried to do as well and much more than that. For example you might get some inspiration from Maya Shakti who lives in Auroville and is very passionate about so called “integral education.” What I like is that she does not only discuss abstract principles and then return to the business as usual (a sport that is highly regarded among contemporary pedagogues) but in her community they are trying to implement it in the practical everyday life by doing, working, and trying to see how far the ideal works with all its inevitable human and bureaucratic limitations. This is an interview to her of mine, plan to do another sooner or later.