Kieran Egan (philosopher)

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Kieran Egan
Egan in 2004
Egan in 2004
Born1942 (1942)
OccupationAuthor, Professor of Education, Canada Research Chair in Education

Kieran Egan (1942-2022) was a contemporary educational philosopher and a student of the classics, anthropology, cognitive psychology, and cultural history.[1] He has written on issues in education and child development, with an emphasis on the uses of imagination and the intellectual stages (Egan calls them understandings) that occur during a person's intellectual development. He has questioned the work of Jean Piaget and progressive educators, notably Herbert Spencer and John Dewey.

He currently works at Simon Fraser University.[2] His major work is the 1997 book The Educated Mind.[citation needed]

Early life[edit]

Egan was born in 1942 in Clonmel Ireland, though he was raised and educated in England. He graduated from the University of London with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1966. He subsequently worked as a research fellow at the Institute for Comparative Studies in Kingston upon Thames. He then moved to the United States and began a PhD in the philosophy of education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Egan completed his PhD at Cornell University in 1972.[3][4]


Kieran Egan is the director of the Imaginative Education Research Group,[2] which was founded by the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. The goal of this group is to improve education on a global scale by developing and proliferating the ideas of Imaginative Education[5]

Educated Mind[edit]

Criticism of previous education theories[edit]

Egan argues that much of educational theorizing pivots around three basic ideas of what the aim of education should be:

  1. to educate people in content that would give them a "privileged and rational view of reality"[6] (Plato). Here we find the following ideas: reason and knowledge can provide a privileged access to the world; knowledge drives the student mind development; education is an epistemological process.
  2. to realize the right of every individual to pursue his own educational curriculum through self-discovery (Rousseau). Here we also find the ideas that student development drives knowledge and that education is a psychological process.
  3. to Socialize the child - to homogenize children and ensure that they can fulfill a useful role in society, according to its values and beliefs.

Egan argues in Chapter One that "these three ideas are mutually incompatible, and this is the primary cause of our long-continuing educational crisis";[7] the present educational program in much of the West attempts to integrate all three of these incompatible ideas, resulting in a failure to effectively achieve any of the three.[8]

"Cultural recapitulation" theory[edit]

Egan theory on how knowledge and understanding develop in the mind through learning is five categorical kinds of understanding. This individual process reflects "logical and psychological pressures." Egan differentiates his theory from the conceptions of recapitulation common in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

People can learn cognitive tools that are grouped and classified into five kinds of understanding:

  1. Somatic - somatic understanding is the innate understanding of one's physical functions as well as emotions. This understanding persists in the way children "model their overall social structure in play". This understanding comes before language acquisition and the development of language
  1. Mythic - mythic understanding is understanding of "binary opposites" such as Tall/Short or Good/Evil. Tools or methods such as images, metaphor, and story-structure are used in pre-literate sense-making.
  1. Romantic - romantic understanding is when the "limits of reality" discovered. This is the stage when there is a desire to explore the limits of reality, an interest in the transcendent qualities of things, and "engagement with knowledge represented as a product of human emotions and intentions" (p. 254)
  1. Philosophic - philosophic understanding is the creation of principles which underlie patterns and limits found in data, and ordering knowledge into coherent general schemes.
  1. Ironic - ironic understanding is the "mental flexibility to recognize how inadequately flexible are our minds, and the languages we use, to the world we try to represent in them". This includes the ability to consider alternative philosophic explanations, and is characterized by a Socratic stance in the world.

"Drawing from an extensive study of cultural history and evolutionary history and the field of cognitive psychology and anthropology, Egan gives a detailed account of how these various forms of understanding have been created and distinguished in our cultural history".[1]

Each stage includes a set of "cognitive tools", as Egan calls them, that enrich our understanding of reality. Egan suggests that recapitulating these stages is an alternative to the contradictions between the Platonic, Rousseauian and socialising goals of education.

Egan resists the suggestion that religious understanding could be a further last stage, arguing instead that religious explanations are examples of ironic understanding preserving a richly developed somatic understanding.

Main works[edit]

Awards and honors[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b Theodora Polito, Educational Theory as Theory of Culture: A Vichian perspective on the educational theories of John Dewey and Kieran Egan Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2005
  2. ^ a b Egan, K., & Judson, G. (2008). Of Whales and Wonder. Educational Leadership, 65(6), 20-25.
  3. ^ a b Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. ^[bare URL PDF]
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 23 July 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link). Accessed on 13 November 2010
  6. ^ Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (page 13). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
  7. ^ Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (introduction). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
  8. ^ D. James MacNeil, review of The educated mind, for the 21st Century Learning Initiative, September 1998
  9. ^ "1991- Kieran Egan". Archived from the original on 10 June 2015.
  10. ^ "Kieran Egan: Teacher of the Years". Retrieved 19 October 2010.