Unlearning in crisis and change

What do you need to know in order to effect change? What do you need to learn to bring change about? These are questions that we ask as we set out to become agents of change. But we should also ask: what do I need to unlearn in order to prepare myself for a new and different way of thinking? Unlearning is important too. Unlearning is an essential part of the process of change.

Change and innovation both call for unlearning. To think anything new, and to see what could be new in things, one needs to find a way of unlearning what one already knows. Without unlearning, there is no chance of achieving a break and new beginning in your way of doing things. Think of experiences you’ve had of working towards change in whatever respect, and reaching a moment in which you saw that change was actually possible – more than possible, inevitable. In the sense of inevitablity – the realization that nothing you can say or do will make a difference, things will change – there is a new beginning.

There is a world of learning to be done to prepare oneself for a new beginning. But to become a new beginning, and to enter wholeheartedly into the process of change, you need unlearning.

Martin Heidegger develops a theory of learning and unlearning in Being and Time (1927). Heidegger argues that human understanding is first and foremost a circumspective understanding of the environment of our practical concerns. Our ‘intentional’ understanding of objects, items, and things is grounded in a more basic mode of apprehension. We have a ‘pre-reflective’ understanding of the background or ‘horizon’ of our concerns. This shifting background informs our every cognition and act of judgement.

Heidegger’s account resonates. It gets at the way we feel immersed and absorbed in the world, embedded in a network of practices. To understand the meaning and significance of any problem or thing in the world, Heidegger claims, we must attune ourselves to a background of practices. We must enter into the world of the problem or thing, and treat it in ways that such-and-such a community would expect it to be treated. We must accustom ourselves to the common discourses and practices pertaining to this problem or thing to understand it as the problem or thing it is.

Extrapolating from Heidegger’s account, we see that to change our understanding of life or any part of it, we must transform the cognitive-existential background on the basis of which we understand things. We must unlearn how to come at life on the basis, and in light of, a certain background of understanding. We must be open to the possibility of grasping life on the basis of a radically different background. This is how new beginnings are possible.

The only real future is the impossible future. The future is always impossible until we unlearn what we know of the past. This is a task that must be repeated with each generation.

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