Virtue and Ethos - Moral Bildung, Education and Practising in European Pedagogy to the
Malte Brinkmann, Berlin
The relationship between virtue and education has been debated in philosophy and pedagogy
for centuries. In the following, I will discuss this relation from the perspective of a theory of
Bildung and a theory of practising (Brinkmann 2021). In order to clarify the pedagogical
connection between virtues and Bildung, I will proceed in two steps. In the first part of my
paper, I will present three models of Bildung and illustrate the relationship of each to virtues
and values. I will present the Christian-theological model (referring to Meister Eckart), the
humanistic model (with Wilhelm von Humboldt) and finally the late modern and existential
model of Bildung (with Eugen Fink). I will show that Bildung experiences are founded in
negative experiences and that they can lead to transformation and conversion of the whole
person. Theories of Bildung and pedagogy remain referred to something fundamental, non-
pedagogical, in which virtues and ethics are grounded. Theories of Bildung have to include the
aspect of uncertainty, the aspect of freedom and the aspect of transformation. They refer to
possibilities. Bildung thus cannot be captured as competences, as facts, or as output.
On this basis of a theory of Bildung, the second part deals with moral Bildung and the question
of how it can be learned and taught. I will argue that acting virtuously and ethos only can be
practised as a attitudes. I will start with Plato again and then turn to Aristotle. Then I will make
a leap into modernity and explain how an Bildung-theoretical model of practising an ethos can
be shaped. First, I will introduce Max Scheler’s theory of the role model und counter-image
(Vorbild und Gegenbild) as a possibility how ethos and virtues as attitudes can be practised.
Then, against the background of modern ethos research and theories of Bildung, I will discuss
ways in which a pedagogical ethos can be practised in university courses in teacher education.
1. Introduction: Two Systematic Remarks
First, I would like to introduce two systematic remarks. Systematic means a set of statements
ordered according to principles for the purpose of knowledge (Kant: Critique of Pure Reason,
transcendental methodology). General pedagogy, as whose representative I speak, sees itself
in the German-speaking world as a systematic science that attempts to determine its subject
(pedagogy) systematically. Here we use, amongst others, two central terms: Bildung and
education. They are systematically differentiated. We thus speak of a pedagogical difference
(cf. Prange, 2005; Benner, 2015).
Whilst education or practices of education aim at enabling or initiating Bildung and thus
representing a social activity that can mostly be understood as an intentional practice, Bildung
is understood as a process in which the human being is seen in interplay with the world
(Humboldt 2000). Processes of Bildung are seen as processes of transformation, of conversion
(cf. Koller, 2018; Meyer-Drawe, 2008). Seen this way, Bildung is not a competence, it is not a
fact, nor is it a fixed inventory of human reality; rather, it can be understood as horizons of
the possibility of becoming what one is. Education, in contrast, is a social process that
manifests itself in concrete actions (especially in pointing), thus indicating an interaction. It
commonly involves a specific goal and is based on certain values or virtues.
Modern pedagogy refers to a twofold transformation. On the one hand, it is about Bildung as
a process of transformation. On the other hand, it is about the transformation of non-
pedagogical topics, contents, values and goals into pedagogical ones. This is related to the
development of modern education. Modern education is no longer a mere reproduction of
contents, themes or values, which are passed on in simple interaction experience without
explicit and intentional thematisation and presentation by specially trained professionals
(teachers) in special public institutions (schools) with a special technique (didactics) and a
special ethos (professional ethos). In situations of direct intergenerational coexistence, for
example in families or precisely in pre-modern society, the distinction between Bildung and
education only plays a marginal role. Therefore, modern educational systems require a
transformation of extra-pedagogical contents, aims and values into pedagogical ones. This
transformation must be aligned with the process character of Bildung and education. This non-
affirmative theory of education (cf. Benner, 2015; Uljens, & Kullenberg, 2021) suggests that
there is a difference between e. g. politics, aesthetics, ethics, religion and education. As these
societal practices (politics, religion, ethics and education) perform different things, they
cannot conceptually derive from each other. They stand in a non-hierarchical relation to each
other, neither of them being sub- or super-ordinate to the other. Bildung and education as
such would not perceive itself superior to politics or religion or philosophy. We can call this
the integrity of pedagogy. This includes, that a theory of Bildung should play a critical role in
so far as criticality means providing an alternative to what contemporary education practice
aims at, like standards, competences, excellence and competition.
Following up these systematic considerations, I will argue in the second part that Values and
virtues cannot simply be applied “hierarchically” in pedagogy. Their thematisation in
education and didactics must consider the processes and experiences in Bildung processes.
Ethics in pedagogical contexts are referred to a theory of Bildung.
Secondly I will show in the perspective of a theory and practice of moral education: Moral
Bildung is not the knowledge and knowing of values, but the embodied practice of moral and
value-based actions. In general, knowledge about justice, truthfulness, proficiency, patience,
etc. is initially useless for practice. It has to be transferred into and embodied in practices and
implemented in pedagogical actions. In order to avoid a rigid rule dogmatism on the one hand
and a relativistic anything-goes attitude on the other, it is important to focus not on ethics but
on ethos as the crucial category of a theory of moral Bildung.
2. First Part: Theory of Bildung
The first part of my paper will be about the process of Bildung as experience. Here I refer to
three models and thereby follow a model-theoretical intention. I will interpret these as
varieties of interaction and responsibility with and for the world. In doing so, it will become
clear that the process of Bildung can be understood an expansion and transformation of the
relationship to the self and the world. Bildung is neither knowledge nor competence, but a
movement of experience based on receptivity, negativity and imagination and practice.
Plato’s allegory of the cave can be read as an archetype of pedagogical and Bildung-theoretical
thinking, in which the art of redirecting the gaze is at the centre (cf. Benner, 2020. The word
paideia initially meant both: Bildung and education. Both practices can be distinguished more
precisely with Plato. The narrative begins with political considerations, then turns to Bildung-
theoretical and educational implications, which have become fundamental in European
culture for the concepts of Bildung and education as well as for teaching and learning. Political
practice, according to Plato, can only be exercised by those people who also ask themselves
the question of the good and discuss it with others. Plato sees philosophers as best suited for
Plato interprets the ascent from the cave and the failure of the one who has returned to the
cave as the basic structure of processes of education and Bildung. No one can insert “in blind
eyes something seen(ein Gesehenes)” (Politeia 518c). Education takes place through the
turning of the gaze, through a periagoge that could be supported by education but not caused
or forced. Each person can only turn their gaze themselves. Educational processes are thus
based on an “art of redirecting” the gaze and the “soul” (Politeia 521c). In other words,
processes of Bildung are triggered and initiated by educational actions, but not caused in the
proper sense. Education is directed at pedagogical practitioners who seek to influence the
processes of Bildung of adolescents, but not at the adolescents themselves.
Bildung, in other words, is a process that cannot be delegated. It has a particular structure
that I would like to define more precisely in the following with Meister Eckhart, Wilhelm von
Humboldt and Eugen Fink.
a. Meister Eckhart: Bildung as Einbildung (Imagination, Formation) and Entbildung (De-
The German-language term Bildung is found in the Christian Middle Ages as a translation of
the Latin words formatio, imaginatio, and partly also of erudutio and informatio (cf. Witte,
2010, p. 31). Even before Eckhart, uses are found in the commentary on Boethius of Notker of
Sankt Gallen (around 1000). Meister Eckhart adds the terms Einbildung, Überbildung and
Entbildung.1 I would like to briefly present four aspects of the concept of education and the
educational movement in Meister Eckhart.2
Bildung is firstly adjusted in the context of the Christian Ordo, i. e. Christian values and the
Christian conception of the world and the human being. The process of Bildung is here seen
as a conversion and transformation in which a negativity appears. It is oriented and directed
towards composure. Man should leave worldly, external things, de-imaginate (entbilden)
himself in order to attain true Bildung. “But if man desists from himself whatever he then
retains, be it wealth or honour or whatever, he has desisted from everything.” (DW V, pp. 194,
1 In German, prefixes can be used very precisely to refer to the root of a word (Wortstamm) in different contexts.
Bildung for example can be varied in meaning: Einbildung, Ausbildung, Entbildung, Überbildung etc.
2 Meister Eckhart was a German Theologian, Philosopher and Mystic in the 13th century. As a youth, Eckhart
joined the Dominican Order, in which he later attained high office. With his sermons, he not only made a strong
impact on his contemporaries, but also impressed posterity. He also made an important contribution to the shaping
of German philosophical terminology. He was later accused of heresy, but died before the trial was completed.
3 „Lässt der Mensch aber von sich selbst ab, was er auch dann behält, sei es Reichtum oder Ehre oder was immer,
so hat er alles gelassen.“ (DW V, S. 194, 507)
Secondly, this process is based on reason, not on revelatory knowledge. 4 Human reason is
founded in divine love. Eckhart distinguishes between the intellectual or spiritual and the
bodily dimensions of the process of Bildung. Only the intellectual imagination is true Bildung,
which he interprets with the metaphor of the mirror as a process of representation: “I will
recite a parable to you: a mirror is held up to me: whether I want it or not, without will and
without knowledge of myself, I am portrayed in the mirror. This image (Bild) does not come
from the mirror, nor does it come from the mirror itself; rather, this image (Bild) is based
mostly in the one from whom it has its being and its nature.” (DW I, pp. 559/491)5 In the
reflection (Spielgelbild), image (Abbild) and archetype (Urbild) are present at the same time.
This is possible because man and God are alike. Here the doctrine of the imago dei is in the
background. Man is distinguished because of his or her likeness to God. Meister Eckhart
elsewhere explicitly refers to Augustine in this context (with the distinction between imago
and similitudo). The human soul is separated by birth, but also from God.
In Sermon 16, Meister Eckhart attempts to push thinking in the Neoplatonic tradition to the
limits of what can be said. Here he draws on concepts from the negative theology of Dionysius
Areopagita. The concept of de-imagination (Entbildung) enables the human soul to ascend the
upper, rational part of the soul towards God by letting go of everything worldly and objective
(Überbildung). Entbildung takes up the Old Testament prohibition of images and connects it
with the doctrine of the imago dei. This is reflected philosophically (and not mystically), as this
is done in the language of Neoplatonism and negative theology. Bildung is not only ad
imaginem dei, instead the human being is imago dei, the image of God himself, in a univocal
4“There are two kinds of knowledge of eternal life in this life. One comes from God himself telling people or
offering it to them through an angel or revealing it through a special illumination. This happens rarely and only to
a few people. The other knowledge is incomparably better and more useful, and is granted to all perfect loving
men: this is based on the fact that man, out of love and confidential intercourse which he has with his God, trusts
him so completely and is so certain of him that he could not doubt, and he thereby becomes so certain because he
loves him indiscriminately in all creatures. (DW V, pp. 240f./519)
„Zweierlei Wissen gibt es in diesem Leben vom ewigen Leben. Das eine kommt daher, dass Gott selber es den
Menschen sage oder es ihnen durch einen Engel biete oder durch eine besondere Erleuchtung offenbare. Dies
geschieht selten und nur wenigen Menschen. Das andere Wissen ist ungleich besser und nützer und wird allen
vollkommenen liebenden Menschen zuteil: das beruht darauf, dass der Mensch aus Liebe und vertraulichem
Umgang, den er mit seinem Gott hat, ihm so völlig vertraut und seiner so sicher ist, dass er nicht zweifeln könnte,
und er dadurch so sicher wird, weil er ihn unterschiedslos in allen Kreaturen liebt.“ (DW V, S. 240f./519)
5 „Ich will Euch ein Gleichnis vortragen: Man halte mir einen Spiegel vor: ob ich wolle oder nicht, ohne Willen
und ohne Erkenntnis meiner selbst bilde ich mich im Spiegel ab. Dieses Bild stammt nicht vom Spiegel, es stammt
auch nicht von ihm selbst; dieses Bild gründet vielmehr allermeist in dem, von dem es sein Sein und seine Natur
hat.“ DW I, S. 559/491)
relationship, which, however, cannot be represented linguistically and also no longer in
Processes of Bildung are, thirdly, at the same time imagination (Einbildung) and de-
imagination (Entbildung), receiving and withdrawing. The human being is formed (gebildet)
and at the same time de-formed (entbildet) in relation to God. He or she finds their goal in the
unification of the soul with the Son of God under conditions of the ethical maxim of
composure and in the space of divine grace. This is based on a theory of the person, which
reflects him or herself in the process of Bildung, i. e. becomes conscious of itself.6
Fourthly, the human being always remains dependent on something that he or she is not,
something that he or she can receive and that makes his or her being possible in the first place
– the gift of Bildung is based on a given that can reveal itself in the grace of God. A possible,
positive completion of Bildung (is) withdrawn from the human will. (Witte, 2010, p. 57). In the
imagination and de-imagination (Einbildung und Entbildung) in interplay with God or divine
grace, the I gains its person-like identity, insofar as in the, paradoxically speaking, composure
of letting the world be, world and person are first gained. This peculiar structure is also found
in a secularized manner in Wilhelm von Humboldt, to which I will turn now.
b. Wilhelm von Humboldt: Humanistic Bildung
We also find the double structure of the process of Bildung between activity and passivity,
between receiving and withdrawal in Wilhelm von Humboldt's theory of Bildung. He reacts to
the change from a closed society to an open society (cf. Humboldt, 1960b). His theory is based
on the experiences of plurality and contingency of modern times. All traditional human
determinations, both individual and general, became obsolete. There is no universal standard
or scale for Bildung (cf. Humboldt, 1960b, 234f.). Rather, as Humboldt explained in the manner
of gendered writing of his time: man must give himself his destiny. Bildung is thus first and
foremost self-assurance and Bildung of the self on his or her own risk.
One must therefore seek the goal and meaning of his life for oneself. He can take on these
tasks because he is ductile (bildsam, she or he has the ability of Bildung), i. e. she or he can
give oneself goals and appropriate the world, in other words and to translate it literally: give
6 Rückgriff hier auf die Theorie des Intellekts von Dietrich von Freiberg (cf. Witte, 2010, p. 73).
oneself a form (sich bilden). Bildung is thus in principle inconclusive and open, teleologically
indeterminate (cf. Benner, 2005).
According to Humboldt, Bildung is the “highest and most proportional” (Humboldt, 1960a, p.
64) development of all human powers under the condition that a “linking of the self to the
world to achieve the most general, most animated, and most unrestrained interplay”
(Humboldt, 2000, p. 58) takes place. Interplay is the basic category of Humboldt’s dynamic
view of man and the world. Human spontaneity interplays with receptivity. Here, the world
cannot be a material of human arbitrariness, but is itself something active, something original
(ursprünglich), something that constitutes the uncatchable foundation of all human
knowledge. For this purpose, one should strengthen all his powers because one is also
dependent on a world beyond oneself (cf. Humboldt, 2000, p. 59). According to Humboldt,
Bildung is therefore as much a formation of powers as engaging in Bildung supports the aim
of strengthening these powers. Powers in this context are the human mental, physical and
emotional faculties, such as reason, judgement, physical-practical power and the power to
perform action. Bildung is the productive or imaginative power (Einbildungskraft) as the
creative centre of the human mind. Bildung of the productive or imaginative power
(Einbildungskraft) now becomes the hallmark of humanist engagement with the self and the
world. This is how not only Humboldt sees it, but Schiller, Goethe, Fichte and Schelling as well.
Bildung of the productive or imaginative power (Einbildungskraft) is strongly related to
personal and political freedom – as Humboldt and Schiller put it. Thus, Bildung can only be
determined formally; contents and materials cannot be goals, but only means of Bildung.
In his posthumous work “Theorie der Bildung des Menschen” (cf. Humboldt, 2000), Humboldt
develops a three-tiered structure of the interplay between man and world. Bildung is firstly
the externalisation of power. Power “needs an object on which it may be exercised”. Secondly,
an idea needs “material” or content for “development” and thirdly, one needs a “world
outside oneself” in order to be able to last (ibid.). Bildung is thus first of all the internalisation
of the world and refers to one’s self-relationship. Secondly, “his actions are not possible
except by means of a third element […] that is, world” because he can only think something
and act on the condition of or by the power of something else. Therefore, Bildung is “to grasp
as much world as possible” (ibid.). Thirdly, Bildung is bound to an ideal concept of humanity
(as the expression of all human possibilities) and to an ideal concept of the world (as “every
conceivable diversity”) (ibid.). This ideal is not a supertemporal and supra-spatial entity, but a
regulative idea that is supposed to guide thought and actions.
The ideal of humanity would therefore be misunderstood if it were seen as an archetype of
images (Urbild von Abbildern) in the sense of Plato or as a reflection of imagination and de-
imagination (Einbildung und Entbildung) as in Meister Eckhart. The regulative ideal as a
changing historic Apriori on the one hand, and as an empirical appearance on the other, rather
determine each other in the sense of a mutually articulating expression and claim. The ideal
only appears under the condition of the empirically manifested characteristic peculiarity of
Any instance of such a world-self interplay in the form of Bildung is thus always characterised
by alienation. Because one’s “nature drives one to reach beyond oneself to the external
objects”, one runs the risk of losing “oneself in this alienation” (Humboldt, 2000, p. 59).
Bildung is therefore determined negatively, while the alienation in and through the world is
necessary, it opens at the same time a way back from this alienation. The world, that is the
other people, the things and nature, are thus others and something other, in which and with
which we alienate ourselves. However, this way back from alienation is not the fundamental
abolition of alienation. For only something that is foreign and unknown, uncertain and
unavailable, something that leads the human being out of oneself, can have an effect of
Bildung. In mere identity with oneself, one could not give oneself a form (sich bilden), one
could not ask for his own purpose. In pure identity with the world, no experiences could be
made (cf. Benner, 2003, p. 104). Bildung is thus a new experience through appropriation of
the world and at the same time progressive alienation into the world. Bildung in this sense
aims at a change and transformation of the relationship to oneself and to the world (cf. Koller,
According to Humboldt’s later works, this relationship is primarily structured through
language (1999, cf. Brinkmannn, 2019). In his theory of language, he shows that the
movement of Bildung is firstly an interplay between body and mind and secondly between
different worldviews. Bildung is thus interplay between worldviews of different languages and
cultures through mutual alienation and estrangement or consternation (Entfremdung,
Befremdung). The basis of the possibility of understanding other people is therefore
difference, i.e. non-identity and not-understanding. Alienation and estrangement are thus
seen as the premises for processes of Bildung and transformation becoming possible.
c. Eugen Fink: Co-Existential and Fragmentary Model of Bildung
Eugen Fink, Edmund Husserl’s last assistant and Martin Heidegger’s colleague in Freiburg, held
a chair of philosophy and educational studies at the university there. He was active in
phenomenology with significant drafts and works that took up Husserlian thoughts and
critically continued and changed them. He also developed a philosophy of education and a
phenomenologically oriented pedagogy, which elaborated the social, coexistential and
mundane relations of education and Bildung.
In contrast to Husserl, Fink – like Levinas – starts from the experience of the other: “Self-
consciousness is not earlier than foreign consciousness, the I not earlier than the Thou, –
rather, I and Thou, I and Other arise, as it were, simultaneously: in every I there is already the
We” (Fink, 1992, p. 111). The I is thus seen in life-world and social relations.
Fink does not argue in terms of scientific theory or methodology, nor in terms of hermeneutics
and the history of effects, but in terms of praxeology. Philosophy and educational studies are
thus understood as cultural activities. Fink describes five basic phenomena of human
existence as cultural practices (cf. also Fink, 1995): Aesthetic (play), political (domination,
power, technology), active-cultural (work), gender (love) and temporal practices (death) are
complemented by a sixth, pedagogical practice (education) (cf. Fink, 1970). They are
considered social (co-existential) and bodily practices in the time and space of human-political
society and as an expression of existential concern for existence after the “end of the grand
narratives” (Lyotard, 1979) (cf. Burchardt, 2001). The relationality of human beings manifests
itself in these practices. Fink also calls this form of setting oneself in relation practical self-
Humans give themselves a form in these co-existential practices. This n formation as Bildung
is not an intellectual activity, not a concept or idea (cf. Humboldt, 2000). Rather, it is a cultural
and social practice in which people shape themselves culturally and thus give meaning and
character to their relationship to themselves, to one another and to the world. In other words,
human beings’ open relations express themselves in cultural and social practices on the basis
of a practical understanding.
This ambivalence between non-established openness in relations and practical establishment
in practices is characterised by Fink as a process of Bildung.
“Bildung is above all the living-creative process of self-understanding of our existence, in each
case here and now. [...]; it is the – perhaps tragic – attempt to find a relevant orientation for
existence in the dark labyrinth of the world, the effort to find the right life through one’s own
strength (Fink, 2019a, 83–84).”7
Bildung is thus, on the one hand, self-formation as practical and dynamic interpretations of
being (Dasein). On the other hand, it is integrated into the coexistential practices of existence
and thus also a cultural form of community in which people provisionally limit, define and
establish their openness to being and the world. However: the truth of our being, and thus
the essence of being human, remains elusive. It remains a “tragic” attempt. Bildung as a
practice of self-understanding (Selbstverständigung) in the horizon of coexistential communal
practices must come to terms with the fact that the question of the existential meaning of
cultural practice can never be definitively determined. However, it can be decided in practice,
in that in each case, provisionally and culturally limited, a certain understanding takes shape
as an answer.
Bildung as self-understanding (Selbstverständigung) thus becomes a practical-existential
experiment in meaning making under conditions of provisionality, uncertainty and
strangeness (cf. Schütz, 2017b). Experiences of deprivation as experiences of contingency,
uncertainty and strangeness as well as experiences of not being able to fully “get a grip” on
oneself are conceived by Fink as co-existential experiential dimensions of negativity. “The
human being as fragment” (Fink, 2019b) is Fink's basic anthropological thesis. Bildung can
therefore no longer be general Bildung (Allgemeinbildung like Klafki put it) in the mode of
wholeness and reconciliation. With Fink, the Christian telos is omitted. The totality of
humankind and the world hoped for in the humanist tradition as well as the humanistic idea
of humanity is shattered. Bildung is necessarily fragmentated and fragmentary.
7 „Bildung ist vor allem der lebendig-schöpferische Prozeß der Selbstverständigung unseres Daseins, und zwar
jeweils hier und jetzt. […]; sie ist der – vielleicht tragische – Versuch einer gültigen Daseinsorientierung im
dunkel-verworrenen Labyrinth der Welt, die Anstrengung, aus eigener Kraft zum rechten Leben zu finden (Fink,
Human existence is only inadequately understood if it is conceived as a relationship between
beings analogous to the relationship between things. It can only be understood
cosmologically, i. e. “from the relation of the inner-worldly being to the encompassing world-
entirety” (Sepp, 2005, p. 161). In their understanding of being, human beings are to be
understood primarily from the difference between the life-worldly enclosure on the one hand
and the whole of the cosmos on the other.
Human openness to the world and human Bildung are thus based on a relationship to the
world, to the cosmos, that is neither fixed in terms of content nor media. It is an openness to
the whole of being, to the world. It reveals itself in the “panic” or “Dionysian” (Nietzsche)
experiences of rapture, love and finitude, in which people's principium individuationis, their
identity or selfhood dissolves and they see themselves absorbed in an Other, a greater. Human
Dasein is seen from the perspective of a shared “belonging to the openness of the world”
(Fink, 1990, p. 98). The world is thus experienced "practically" in understanding,
communicating and sharing the world with others. In this, Fink clearly differs from Heidegger.
Bildung and education are founded in the horizon of an existential and cosmological
Therefore, according to Fink, there can no longer be any superordinate values. In the “age of
nihilism” (Nietzsche), the ideal itself becomes the object of pedagogical practice – as value
setting and value production. I cannot pursue this very interesting idea of the production of
ideals in pedagogical deliberations any further and refer to Finks (1992) “Philosophy of
Education” and Meyer-Wolters (1992).
8 The negative aspects in the process of Bildung are currently negotiated in Germany under the title of
"negative experiences" (Benner, 2005) and are considered constitutive moments of processes of
Bildung and learning. Theories of relearning and repractice (Meyer-Drawe, 2008, Brinkmann, 2012a)
as well as transformational theories of Bildung (Koller, 2018) show that processes of Bildung often
imply transformation and redirection, affecting both people's present and their memory, both their
prior knowledge and prior ability as well as their anticipations, i.e., their preconceptions and attitudes.
Günter Buck, in his classic book on learning as experience, describes experience as a process and a
"turning around of the whole person" (Buck, 2019, p. 13). The "inner referencing of experience" is an
experiential experience, an experience that is made about experience itself. Therefore, there is no
erasure of old experience, but rather it is given a new index (cf. Brinkmann, 2012a, p. 139). In this
reflexive turn of experience, "a change in our ability to experience" (Buck, 2019, p. 14) can take place.
The focus on practice in Fink’s work means that it is not values but rather attitudes that move
to the focus. The perspective on attitude or ethos will be the focus in the second part of my
paper in a pedagogical educational theory perspective.
Bildung has always referred to something else: God or God’s grace, the ideal of humanity or
to world and cosmos. Bildung can never be “cognitively realised” by will or decision. To put it
with Marion (2015): Only on the foundation of the given the gift of Bildung becomes
comprehensible. Therefore, Bildung as a process is always connected with negativity, with a
withdrawal, an alienation, a crisis or an irritation, a rupture. Indeed, one can say with Plato,
Bildung is only possible because of negative experiences. For pedagogy as a science, this
means: theories of Bildung and pedagogy remain referred to something fundamental, non-
pedagogical. Bildung is only possible because of this negativity, because only through it is the
person set in motion, called out of the fixed, steady and conventional. Only in this way does
Bildung become possible as transformation and conversion. Bildung would be completely
misunderstood if it were reduced to attainable and definable goals, to competences or to
applicable literacy or to a stock of knowledge.
The media and means of Bildung are determined differently in the three models. With Meister
Eckhart it is the imagined reflection of the divine image of the human soul, which at the same
time withdraws. In Wilhelm von Humboldt, it is the interaction between the human being and
the world in the mode of the creative imagination (in the later works, it is language). Finally,
in Eugen Fink's work, it is the understanding in cultural practices in the negatively conceived
and experienced relationship of human beings to the cosmos.
All three models are based on different moral orders. Meister Eckhart proceeds with his
philosophy and theology within the framework of the Christian ordo. Here, Christian values
and virtues such as love, charity, etc. count. Wilhelm von Humboldt was within the framework
of the humanistic view of the human being and the world. Here it is above all the virtue of
tolerance, the recognition of others and strangers, with which self-formation and the ideal of
humanity are strained. Finally, in Eugen Fink’s work, it becomes clear that this humanist
context is also broken. Here, the individual human being proves him or herself exemplarily in
concrete social, cultural practices of love, work, play, in the context of power and in the face
of death. The individual is thus left to his or her own decisions and has to make them at his or
her own risk. For this very reason, he or she can become a role model (Vorbild) for others.
I will look more closely at the relationship between Bildung and Vorbild in the second part of
my paper with the philosophy of Max Scheler. Then I will show with Aristotle, Kant and Herbart
as well as with reference to current ethos research that virtues as embodied ethos (attitude)
can be practised in educational contexts.
3. Second Part: Practising Ethos
I would like to begin again with two or three perhaps provocative theses. These arise, on the
one hand, from the overview of Bildung theory from Part 1 and, on the other hand, from a
pedagogical perspective on the topic of this symposium: virtues.
Moral Bildung is not the knowledge and knowing of values, but the practice of moral and
value-based actions. They become manifest in attitudes in which virtues are shown in action.
In contrast to competence, which puts skills and abilities permanent, ethical action has to
prove itself again and again in situations. It can therefore not be converted into a fixed stock,
scaled or measured. Ethical action also does not function according to fixed rules.
Ethos as a unit of morality or custom (Sitte) in behaviour and attitude (character) is important
in pedagogy as a professional ethos. Due to its special structure and its Bildung-theoretical
foundation, ethical catalogues of virtues cannot simply be applied. Ethos cannot be easily
taught in the sense of instruction or by simple transmission of knowledge. Ethos is not the
result of a sudden insight, nor is it based solely on cognitive or volitional prerequisites and
beliefs. Even if one undertakes to act good in a moral way and tries to keep virtues in the eye,
this alone does not enable one to practice in the sense of ethos. Ethical activity, like Bildung,
thus in a certain way eludes reasonable and volitional influence. Ethos, as it has been
presented here, must be communicated as practicing the practice of ethos: through
repetition, practice, and experience.
I want show in the following that ethos can be practised in two ways: a. by example e. g. role
model (Vorbild), b. by practising moral judgments. The first way is practised in social and
pedagogical contexts in the sense of functional education. The second way is the explicit and
intentional performance of moral questions in education and teaching. There, according to
my thesis, judging can be sharpened through examples and cases and then communicated
intersubjectively. Values that guide the actions of educators thus make it possible to address
moral and value-orientated Bildung. The effect of this is uncertain and determined by
negativity (see part one).
a. Aristotle: Practising Ethos
In his famous Menon dialogue, Plato asks whether virtues can be taught at all. If virtues cannot
be learned, then a pedagogical question is also superfluous. After this initial question of
whether virtue, that is, whether good action is teachable (didacton), he comes to the
questions: What is teachable at all, what is learnable at all, what is not teachable and what is
not learnable? Why can we learn something that we do not yet know, if one always has to
already know something in order to learn?
Plato distinguishes between practice (askesis), natural conditions (physis) and teaching
(mathesis). These three points are essential components of learning. We call this triangle the
pedagogical ternary (cf. Prange, 2005). In his theory of learning, Plato gives preference to
knowledge over practice. All thinking, perceiving and acting is subordinated to reason (logos)
and is arranged in an ascending sequence of stages of the lower cognitive faculties to thinking
and seeing the highest truth, the idea.
For Aristotle, this hierarchy once again becomes a problem and is criticised. The distinction he
introduces between theoretical and practical reason opens up the question of the relationship
between habituation and thinking, between body and reflection, between repetition and
learning. Aristotle assumes, in contrast to Plato, that there is an ascending path from
experience to knowledge, from practice to theory. Here, however, the relationship between
knowing that and knowing how is different.
The classical text that describes the distinction between theoretical knowledge and practical,
experiential ability is the Nicomachean Ethics. In order to determine the good, the agathon,
Aristotle starts with practical activity, with the concrete and the factual. This is where
repetition comes into play as a core element of experience and practise:
“Thus by building one becomes a builder and by playing the zither one becomes a zither player.
Likewise, by acting righteously we become righteous, by observing temperance we become
temperate, by works of fortitude we become strong-minded” (Aristotle, 1985, 1103a, 1103b).
Practising is done by doing the appropriate thing. Repeated action leads to habit (hexis),
practice to ability. This is not primarily about knowledge (mathesis), but about experience
(empeiria) and action (praxis).
According to Aristotle, the way to learn how to act well is through practising. It is only by doing
that I become an expert and become able to do good things. Mere knowledge, information or
mere knowing that is not enough to become a good guitar player, a teacher or a virtuous
person. It has to be practised in repetition. In ancient Greece there were different forms of
practising, gymnastic practising, mental practising, memorising practising, dietetic practising,
economic practising and so on.
These virtues are the subject and goal of a variety of practices not only for Aristotle, but also
for many Greek thinkers. Rabbow (1954), Hadot (2005) and Foucault (2020/1973) have placed
these practical exercises at the centre of their investigations. They assume that ancient
philosophy was important primarily in its practical interest and in its practical implementation
for people's lives. Being virtuous is not regarded as a state of purity (as in Christianity), nor as
a competence to be achieved cognitively, but as a relationship to oneself that is a practice and
aims at an ability (Können) or a knowing how of oneself. In ancient terminology, this practical
self-relationship and self-understanding is called self-care. It makes practices necessary that
go hand in hand with an awareness and attentiveness for oneself and for others (cf. Foucault,
1989, p. 97).
This makes clear: Ethos and being virtuous is not the result of a sudden insight, nor is it based
solely on cognitive or volitional prerequisites and beliefs. Because of its value-based practical
relation, it cannot be taught in the sense of instruction or simple transmission of knowledge.
In contrast to competence, which puts skills and abilities permanent, ethical actions have to
prove themselves again and again depending on the respective situations. An ethos can
therefore not be scaled or measured. Ethical action does not function as the following of fixed
Mot other words: ethos and virtuous action must be practised. In the following I will discuss
two possibilities to practise ethos and virtues in pedagogical contexts:
b. Scheler: Ethos-Formation by Example (Ethos-Bildung durch Vorbild)
The role model or example (Vorbild) is a first possibility of having a pedagogical effect in the
sense of ethos, i. e. via a practised attitude. Max Scheler attributed great importance to the
role model and counter-image (Vorbild und Gegenbild) in his ethics. The personal I is
constituted in interaction through the example of the other and stimulated to self-forming
and self-expression. This can lead to a transformation or conversion of the person. Due to
intersubjective sympathy based on feelings (cf. Scheler, 2017), according to Scheler, the
person gains his or her identity by being changed, even transcended. This can happen through
a positive or good role model or through an ethically negative counter-image (Vorbild und
For Scheler (1987), the example represents a material ethics. “It is the first prerequisite for all
further valuation.” (p. 262) The role model (Vorbild) is what constitutes the ought (Sollen) and
the norm for Kant. It is practised on a personal, material level. It represents, so to speak, the
shift from formal to material ethics (cf. Scheler, 1973). “Unlike Kant, the highest meaning of
every moral act for Scheler does not consist in the realisation of a supreme law, but in the
demand of a solidary community of persons.” (Cusinato, 2012, p. 175) The criterion for
distinguishing between positive and negative role model or counter-image (Vorbild,
Gegenbild) is the quality of the formation of the person itself. Role model and counter-
image(Vorbild, Gegenbild) thus have an effect on the child, on the adolescent, in that it
challenges the person to practise and deal with his or her own feelings, with the values that
are necessary for the formation (Bildung) of one’s own values and to take a stand in the moral
world. It expresses in action an individual value perspective as an attitude in which an order
of life, an ordo amoris manifests itself (cf. Scheler, 1986). This expresses itself in facial
expressions, gestures, in acts of ethical preferring and de-preferring (Vorziehen und
Nachziehen), that is, in evaluations and valuations. According to Scheler, this is a way of
Feelings are understood not as intellectual phenomena. They are embodied first and
expressed in ethical actions. They effect an imitation that is also based on feelings and
embodiment (cf. Schloßberger, 2005; Bruzzone, 2021). This intersubjective relationship is
referred to here as practice. Bildung as practicing is repetitive, constantly varying and at the
same time transforming (cf. Brinkmann, 2021). Cusinato, whom I follow here, sees in this point
an affinity with the self-care practices of the Greeks studied by Hadot and Foucault (see 3.a).
“A person becomes a role model (Vorbild) when he or she proceeds in his or her process of
Bildung in such a way as to overcome particularly difficult obstacles which knowledge in the
form of tradition is not yet available to overcome.” (Cusinato, 2012, pp. 181f.) Thus, on the
one hand, the role model (Vorbild) works through imitation. The role model (Vorbild) creates
an after-image (Nachbild), so to speak. On the other hand, the role model (Vorbild) tears out
of conventions, traditions and norms in an ethical statement. The interaction between self-
care and care enables the transformation and thus the personalisation of the adolescent. It
makes the difference between norm and morality, between person and world clear. For this
very reason, the role model can also enable the transformation of the person.
For Scheler, then, the role model is an excellent opportunity to have ethical effects in the
sense of a Bildung that simultaneously signifies a formation and a transformation. The
negativity demonstrated in the theory of Bildung, the interruption that occurs in the
exemplary actions of persons, is harnessed into the practices and repetitions of daily life.
Bildung is thus not the excellent moment of an imagination or de-imagination (Einbildung und
Entbildung), nor is it an alienation, but rather the interruption of the habitus produced by the
role model (Vorbild) and his or her statement. In this way, the role model has an orienting and
authoritative effect, it has an educating and forming effect. However, this can only succeed in
repetitive practices, insofar as the person himself or herself is re-formed (umbilden) by
orienting himself or herself to the role model. In this respect, it is not an imitation, but a
creative transformation that is oriented towards the measure of the role model.
c. Practising Moral Judgments and Ethos of Responsibility in Pedagogical Situations
Traditionally, moral philosophy and ethics assume that morality is related to action, character
and will. Kant and Herbart therefore speak of morality and character formation. The strength
of the will to act on what is ethically required or appropriate, even under difficult
circumstances, is called virtue. Virtues are, for example, honesty, justice, cheerfulness,
patience or serenity, humour or kindness. If these virtues are repeatedly performed in action,
they are condensed into attitude. Attitudes always show themselves in the context of others,
as social habits, customs and moral values. But what is socially or educationally desirable is
not necessarily morally desirable. This already shows a difference between social or legal
norms on the one hand and moral values on the other.
We can learn from Scheler that an ethos is shown as an attitude in embodied positioning or
statement in front of others. Attitude can be shown, proven, in an embodied form, but it can
also be concealed or one can lose the attitude again. Ethos as an attitude becomes manifest
in virtues in action. Ethosis based a distinction. Distinctions (Unterscheidungen) are the result
of decisions (Entscheidungen). Decisions as distinctions are based on a judgement (Urteil). this
or that is considered as good or bad). So, we can say: Ethos as action also takes place in
judgements. Ethos is thus based on the ability to make moral judgements.
With Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, judging can be defined more precisely: To judge (krinein) is to
distinguish and to be able to distinguish. In distinguishing, a relationship to the difference of
things, people, values and norms is established. Thus, in judging, distinctions are made and at
the same time these differences are evaluated. Judging thus consists of the practice of
distinguishing, evaluating and deciding. This means that a judgement is made and in the case
of the judgement it is shown: as a statement and bodily positioning in front of others. Judging
is thus also a precarious act that always implies vulnerable aspects. In passing judgement as a
distinguishing statement, one makes oneself vulnerable.
Judging, which is part of ethos as a positioning, is thus not to be understood as a “theoretical
attitude”. The process of judgement takes place in practice and in experience - or more
precisely: in the process of experience itself. Immanuel Kant defined this structure of
reflection between knowledge and ability as power of judgement. For him, the ability to judge
is a “special talent” that “does not want to be taught at all, but only to be practiced” (Kant,
1977, p. 172). Judgement in Kant’s sense is the ability to subordinate the particular to the
general (determining judgement) or to creatively find the general first (reflecting judgement).
Teachers must not only have knowledge of rules, but they must also be able to apply these
rules. This application requires the ability to judge. In order to be able to judge, there is a need
for experience, which has a special relationship to knowledge, and a need for practising, in
which judgements are exercised in a practical way. Acquiring or sharpening the ability to judge
requires practising (cf. Brinkmann, 2012, pp. 382–386).
Herbart (1991) criticised the Kantian model based on reason and transcendence. He specified
the shared practice in teaching with the concept of pedagogical tact (cf. pp. 140f.). The
pedagogical tact requires a sensitivity to resonance or responsiveness on the part of the
teacher, who adapts action to the situation and, above all, to the person. Aristotle, Kant and
Herbart agree that good and capable practice does not simply apply or execute rules but
applies them according to the situation and the person, i. e., with judgement or prudence.
Moral rules cannot simply be learned cognitively. They are based on experience (not
knowledge) and must be practised repeatedly and in practice.
Ethos shows itself as a moral practice in which a person positions themselves on the basis of
evaluations – and takes responsibility. Responsibility for others and caring for others is the
decisive criterion that distinguishes the pedagogical ethos from a general ethos.
Pedagogical action is based, with Hannah Arendt (1994), on a double pedagogical
responsibility: “The child needs special care and nurturing so that nothing happens to it from
the world that could destroy it. But the world also needs protection, so that it is not overrun
and destroyed by the onslaught of the new that comes upon it with each new generation.” (
p. 267) Pedagogical activity happens in interaction with the world. It is showing the word und
sharing the world. This worldliness exists only between and only thanks to human beings.
However, it is based on something non-human. “Therefore, an education in common vision
can be understood as an education in worldliness, that is, an education in comprehension and
understanding.” (Reichenbach, 2018, p.235). But what could such “practices of ethos” or
practices of the pedagogical ethos look like?
There are no clear findings in research on the professional ethos of teachers (cf. Brinkmann,
& Rödel, 2021). This may be surprising at first, since attitude or ethos are usually counted
among the core of ideas of good, competent and professional teaching (cf. Oser et al., 2021.
Only recently has the topic of teacher ethos received increased attention in educational
research. The gap in research may be due, on the one hand, to the ‘soft’, complex subject and
its cultural and individual characteristics. On the other hand, it is also due to the fact that ethos
cannot simply be taught through instruction or knowledge transfer.
There is a large number of approaches in pedagogical ethos research. The ethos of teachers
can be defined as values or value orientations as "standards of orientation and guiding
principles in professional action. Secondly, ethos can be defined in terms of a certain practical
attitude or lived virtues (cf. Carr, 2006; Campbell, 2013), which are acquired through practice.
Ethos is thirdly framed as a cognitive ability to make moral judgements and ethos as a (moral)
competence. Here it is assumed that teachers acquire cognitive prerequisites with which they
can act morally correctly in dilemmatic or challenging situations. These approaches are partly
based on Kohlberg’s stage model of moral development (cf. Weyringer et al., 2012), or on
certain competence models of discourse management (cf. Oser, 1998).
Most practical models start from dilemma situations in their pedagogical implementation, on
the basis of which virtues are thematised and problematised.
The project “Ethos in the Teaching Profession: Manual for Practising a Professional Attitude
(ELBE Manual)” attempts to introduce practices of ethos as practices in moral decision-making
ability in university teacher training. We assume that ethos in the above sense as a situation-
bound professional and experiential action cannot be practised strictly speaking, but that a
moral decision-making ability on the other hand, which manifests itself in an ethos, i. e. in a
situational action, can. The practices are based on short examples from pedagogical
experience. These descriptions serve as examples. They represent a theme-based, ambiguous
situation the teacher's action can be understood as an example or a counter-image (Vorbild
und Gegenbild) they are introduced in seminars as examples and occasions to make
distinctions and practise evaluations. They are intended to encourage students to take a stand
themselves and to practise positioning themselves and thus practising moral decision-making.
Through the discussion and reflection of the examples and the repeated, joint evaluation of
the documented experiences, students are set into a practice in a practising way. At the same
time, the examples encourage them to distance themselves from their preconceptions and
prejudices and to share their experiences.
These practices of moral decision-making with examples aim at the (formation) of an ethos.
They take into account that this is only possible on the fundament of uncertainty, which
concerns both the virtues in modern times and the processes of Bildung. Failure, not knowing
and not being able are components of this concept. Due to the uncertainty und ambiguity,
which do not allow any option to appear as ‘better’, ‘more rational’, ‘more ethical’ etc., in
pedagogical spaces even a is decision is to make. In doing so, the person not only risks that
their decision will later be criticized by others, but also that the judgement itself may conflict
with other judgements or norms and values. Nor has she or he found a “silver bullet”. The
uncertainty has not been “resolved” but a decision is made and a judgement is passed.
Bildung as process and experience is based on uncertainty, receptivity and spontaneity as well
as negativity. The practice of Bildung as imagination and de-imagination (Einbildung und
Entbildung), as interplay between human beings and the ideal of humanity or as provisional,
fragmentary self-understanding (Selbstverständigung) is always founded on a non-
pedagogical background. It is from there that Bildung receives its value concepts, as I have
shown with the example of Christian, humanist and late modern theories of Bildung. The
pedagogical ethos, in contrast to the general ethos, as was made clear in the second part with
Hannah Arendt, is founded on a responsibility to show the world to adolescents and to share
the world with them. I presented two approaches: Bildung of ethos by role model (Vorbild)
and as practising moral decision-making. Both approaches aim at moral Bildung as self-care
and self-practice. They are at the same time imagination of the example (Vorbild) of persons
or virtues, reception and action, reflection and emotion in one (cf. Brinkmann, 2021). The
second possibility is controversially discussed in the pedagogical discourse without any clear
results so far. This makes it clear that the moral Bildung of ethos and virtues, although a
difficult field, seems all the more significant and urgent today.
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