Can Philosophy Help?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
updated 1/10/09


Dismissing the Important Issues

Policy-Making as Programming

On the supposed dysfunctions of conflict



Heslep's model

Different images of school

Functions of Policy

The Role of Philosophy




Dismissing the Important Issues

Bertholt Brecht's aphorism expresses the weary wisdom of the world: "Grub first, then philosophy." Therefore, with that perverseness that is traditional in such proceedings, I will put aside for the moment the important concerns relating to grub for philosophers and deal with some theoretical side-issues.

So far as grub for philosophers is concerned, I am in favor of philosophers insinuating themselves into all manner of remunerative employment, whether in or out of academia. This paper will not likely, however, advance that end.

Provisioning for academic warfare is another reality we will set aside for the moment. This situation will not be helped by any allusions I will make to the "death of Philosophy" or the dawning of a "post-philosophical" age. One could reasonably argue that we are in a "post-psychological" age. Only the economics of credentialism would dispute it.

There's a third issue to be sidestepped for the moment. Maintaining a tradition we were weaned on is a concern not lightly dismissed. However, if we relinquish the traditional conceit that philosophers have a special apprehension of Reality, or a special vision of the Good, Beautiful and True, we pursue philosophy in a humbler mode -- without the capital "P" as Richard Rorty might put it.(1)

But then, will we be doing philosophy, or something else? Does it matter if it may be indistinguishable from general theoretical criticism? Rorty writes, "The urge to make philosophy into Philosophy is the urge to make it the search for some final vocabulary, which can somehow be known in advance to be the common core of, the truth of, all other vocabularies that might be advanced in its place."(2)

Will this be a Philosophical Paper? Hopefully, but without a capital "P"  -- in either word. It should be a paper clear to the point of discomfort and no more muddled than is necessary for understanding.

Policy-Making as Programming

The family of policy-concepts I will be concerned with I will designate as the "program" concept. I intend the word "program" in the sense of a computer program. The characteristics of computer programs which are pertinent to the argument that follows is that

a. they are non-consensual in their execution;
b. their environment of execution is unchanging;
c. their language has ossified, i.e. is delimited and well-defined.
Robert D. Heslep has advanced one such characterization of policy that must strike an experienced policy-analyst as an absolute inversion of wisdom. He writes, "Some debate over educational policies is desirable, namely debate concerned with ineluctable issues, e.g. the value commitments of educational policies. But disputes are undesirable when they are concerned with avoidable issues, for such disputes tend to distract needlessly from any that should exist. ...avoidable issues (are) ...questions of definition, justification and authority." (3)

I seriously entertain the notion that he has constructed a Trojan horse. His approach to policy -- which we will look at more closely below -- would have disastrous effects were it to be taken seriously by practitioners. But someone's disaster might be another's benefit. I can even imagine the possibility that anything that confounded incumbent policy-makers might redound to the general benefit of humankind.

On the supposed dysfunctions of conflict

Heslep claims that the only desirable kind of debate is over the value commitments of educational policies. But who would risk this kind of conflict? What hope for peaceful resolution could we have in our pluralistic society? Is Heslep a ferocious closet revolutionary? More likely his sanguinity is based on an assumption of consensus built into his definition of policy.

The conflicts that Heslep dismisses may be a form of bargaining behavior. It is not clear they are undesirable and their existence throws light on the nature of the policy process. Thomas Schelling comments, "Viewing conflict behavior as a bargaining process is useful in keeping us from becoming exclusively preoccupied either with the conflict or with the common interest."(4) Such balance has its merits.

Is a dispute over authority undesirable? For whom? Why should anyone obey authority? Even allowing that "Authority should be obeyed" is in some sense analytic, why should anyone continue to recognize an authority where such recognition entails a cost?

Why is dispute over definition undesirable? In an organization, authority is less easily challenged -- for generally prudential reasons -- than is the interpretation of crucial terms. Again, it is not self-evident that such disputes are undesirable.

We can imagine two kinds of dispute over justification: a. despite agreement on policy, disputes about how to justify the policy; and b. disputes about the justification of policy aimed at undermining or clarifying the policy or its execution. I submit that the first kind of dispute is of little consequence. Policies are slogans. Most people sense this and don't push for depth of agreement in the consensus that permits adoption of the policy. So far as disputes about justification aimed at undermining and clarifying the policy are concerned, Heslep's position that such are undesirable is not argued.


A short sample of Heslep's adoption guidelines suffices to get at his assumptions. He enjoins would-be policy-adopters with the following:

"Adoption guidelines: The person or persons who are to adopt an educational policy must

7. consider no proposed educational policy for adoption without knowing that there are good reasons for its being adopted, e.g. that any objective stated by the policy is worthy and needs to be attained and that any course of action prescribed by the policy is an effective means for attaining the objective;
8. ensure that all linguistic structures employed in expressing a proposed policy are unambiguous and clear;
9. ensure that the specific condition under which any prescribed course of action is to be followed is definite;
10. consider no proposed educational policy whose adoption would be beyond their positional authority;

11. ensure that all conflicts between a proposed policy and existing policies applying to its recipients have been identified and determine how these conflicts may be resolved, e.g. by appeal to moral, educational or legal priorities;

12. ensure that all foreseeable consequences of the proposed policy have been identified and determine how the opportunity for desirable consequences might be enhanced and the chance for undesirable ones might be diminished...." (5))
From the guidelines for adoption it seems that Heslep conceives of such things as knowledge, good reasons, worthiness, needs, effectiveness, ensuring, linguistic structures, conditions, courses of action, positional authority, conflicts and their resolutions, and foreseeable consequences as determinate, definite and generally indisputable. Or perhaps his real point is that, lacking omniscience, one is presumptuous to adopt a policy.

Another assumption seems to be the passivity of the recipients of a policy: his organization is a machine, more specifically a computer. This passivity, however, follows from the conditions he has built into his notion of policy, particular the non-contended nature of his key concepts.

The consensus for a policy follows almost by definition. Heslep writes, "The utterers of policies have several functions: to formulate, adopt and implement policies. Any occurrent policy logically presupposes that it has been formulated and adopted, formally or informally." (6)

And again: "The utterers of policies logically must have authority for adopting and implementing such statements; for the adoption and the implementation of goals and rules are functions that by their respective concepts can be carried out only by persons in positions of authority." (7)

In short, policy implies authority and adoption, which somehow secures consensus. A question about authority attacks the status of the policy qua policy.


What sorts of special skills do philosophers bring to policy-making. Let's look at an obvious candidate, conceptual analysis. Heslep remarks, "...scholars and researchers typically avoid the problem of definition." (8) Is this then the philosopher's strength? Need we rush in where others fear to tread? Will conceptual analysis do the job?

Conceptual analysis is sometimes contrasted with something called "linguistic anthropology" -- no matter that neither anthropologists nor linguists practice it. A concept of, say, policy elicited through the analysis of a restricted community of speakers or writers is proposed as the concept of policy. However, if power-holders are the main group who talk much about policy, then little wonder that a conceptual analysis of "policy" yields ideology in service of power.

What is conceptual analysis supposed to do? Heslep might suggest: it removes ambiguity and unclarity. Heslep takes ambiguity to be a defect in the formulation of policy. He allows, however, the functionality of such unclarity. He concedes, "While the evasion of clarity might seem to be justified by the need to adopt and implement a given policy, it certainly does not eliminate the eventual necessity and desirability of clarity and the inevitability of disputes attendant on clarification." (9)

Heslep does not allow that "clarity" is relative to circumstance or practice, that implementation may require dispersion of authority throughout an organization and interpretation at a level below that of the formulators of policy.

To ask policy-makers to be clear and unambiguous is problematic. There is something of a paradox here. If a policy provides directives to be followed under certain conditions, it must specify the conditions. Must it then specify when those conditions are met by specifying a prior set of conditions? If so, this leads to an infinite regress. If, however, by "unambiguous and clear" is meant something like "precluding the necessity of invoking such prior sets of conditions" -- which is, at the very least, an act of interpretation -- then these policy-conditions must provide something like "direct apprehensions of knowledge" or require interpretation at the local level, i.e. be disputable.

Heslep's model

Heslep's conception of a policy-maker is that of a computer-programmer -- for a very simple computer. Language is well-defined; interactions are non-negotiable. But this computer is a machine non-interactive with its environment; a car whose direction is set once and for all by welding the steering mechanism.

One important aspect of policy reveals itself here. Knowledge of special conditions becomes irrelevant to actions enjoined by the policy if the implementers have not the authority -- or the courage -- to override it. Heslep hedges on this in his implementation guidelines:"...persons responsible for implementing an educational policy sensitive to the related recipients' values, interests, and prior policy commitments and violate none of these unless there is a good reason for so doing." (10)

Does the existence of the policy count as a good reason for violating the recipients' interests and values?

Different images of school

One's conception of the nature of schooling influences one's conception of educational policy. When we attempt to understand schooling, we find no unitary conception works very well. Rather, a variety of images is required to bring coherence to different aspects of this complex phenomenon.(11) By considering policy in these various contexts we discover its problematic nature.

Consider the school in the image of a moral community, a congregation of a church or temple. Certainly, there are those practices within schools whose justification is invariably moral. In fact, the school as a moral community is an image that most of its daily participants hold most fervently. Things are to be done or avoided because they're good or bad. Adults should be caring and fair. Cruelty is wrong, etc. Policy is a base thing compared to a moral code. It is at best a foreign graft on the body of faith. Policies can be right or wrong irrespective of whether they make certain actions prudent or not. Invoking a policy never provides a moral justification. In a moral community policies are thus essentially challengeable.

Consider the school as a productive organization, a factory. Here again policy is a stranger. The production model justifies internal actions as a kind of output control. Specific environmental information is important to maintain efficiency. Front line adjustment of general directives is a standard mechanism of output optimization.

That schools tend both to have many policies and to be organized like factories is not a counter-consideration. What is crucial here is the existence of a productive activity. That such is the point of most school undertakings is disputable, at best.(12) Most conceptions of the school as factory employ a model that is suited best to the output of non-educational goods, e.g. hours of child-care, rather than to the activities of the classroom. In a community where clear productive values are dominant, policy is not only disputable, but dispensable.(13) The authority of knowledge renders policy an excrescence.

It is in the political arena that policy finds its raison d'etre. That the school is to some extent a political arena can be ascertained by noting the many activities the are justified not on the basis of their morality or productivity, but on the basis of "public relations", community support, staff morale and the like. Policies structure disputes (14) by serving as constraints in a negotiation process. Contra Heslep, this means that disputes about authority, definition and justification, rather than being infelicities in policy, are of the essence.

Functions of Policy

Rather than draw out the argument, I will say right out what I believe the primary function of policy-making to be: it is a rite of legitimation. It also has secondary uses: those of restricting negotiation, mimicking equity and reinforcing organizational "discipline".

An important function of policy is in restricting negotiation. Where policy is lacking, there is freedom of decision. There is also vulnerability to substantial concession in negotiation. In institutions incumbents invoke policy as a commitment that restrict concessions on their part. ("I'd like to do that for you, but my Board passed a policy that...") (15)

On the other side of the negotiation, a challenger may invoke policy to justify complaint about incumbent behavior, or point to the lack of policy to insinuate unfairness.

Another function of policy is that it supports the perception of equity. Let us imagine an absolutely fair judge, treating individuals as individuals within a moral framework. His treatment of apparently similar cases may be very different because of his concern for individual differences. Thus, the fairness of his decisions becomes suspect to those unapprised of his incorruptible nature.

Policy, by dismissing certain dimensions of individuality, creates the perception of equity.(16) But "equity" is an essentially elusive concept -- the lack of trust that invokes it works to undermine confidence in the criteria negotiated to assure it.

Perhaps the most important function of policy -- from the point of view of organizational leadership -- is that of reinforcing discipline. There is a natural tension in organizations between those with the power to legitimate their interests in policy and those who are needed to implement those policies. Clearly, policy serves power. To the extent that power is distributed, dispute about ambiguous policy provides a forum for negotiation within the organization.

The fact that failure to "follow" policy is grounds for reprimand or dismissal in many otherwise flaccid organizations indicates the ritual importance of its legitimating function. (17)

Policy reifies will and obscures authorship, very often creating the illusion of broad consensus . Ambiguity in policy formulation is directly proportional to the breadth of consensus supporting it and inversely proportional to the depth of that consensus.

The pursuit of competing goals within organizations is covered with policy formulations that permit reversals as circumstances dictate while at the same time pretending to pursue a unidirectional rationale. Thus schools "individualize instruction" one year and "provide equal opportunity" the next and turn a deaf ear to philosophers who point up the inconsistency.

Achieving equity does not mean efficiently allocating benefits. The characteristics in terms of which equitable distribution is gauged, which have to be common to all recipients, may not be the characteristics appropriate to an efficient allocation of resources according to individual need. Everyone's getting a pound each of cornmeal and cabbage doesn't help those who need two pounds of either.

The Role of Philosophy

What, then, are philosophers of education doing in pursuing policy studies? What special skills and insights do they bring to the enterprise? Here is a possibility. Philosophers are particularly adept in transcending the paradigms of the disciplines within which policy analysis has been traditionally practiced. Just as experienced chess players can look at a game in its initial stages and more or less accurately sum up where it is going, so does philosophy develop in one a sense of intellectual strategy. Other disciplines may do this; however, I find little evidence that those prepared in other disciplines ever escape the confines of the paradigms they were socialized into.

Actually it is the very marginality of philosophy with respect to administrative practice that gives it an advantage, albeit unperceived by practitioners. Acculturation into the traditions of philosophical discourse and reflective self-criticism give one an intellectual edge that, unfortunately, is seldom appreciated in the rites of schooling.

Let's leave the philosophical issues and address the problem of grub. Philosophers need that, too. Policy studies are easily as well done by philosophers as by anyone else. One ought not confuse, however, institutional survival tactics with matters of theoretical import -- which is not to dismiss the study of such tactics as having no interest.

As concerns academic competition and the apparent loss of raison d'etre , other fields are suffering equally. Organization theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer laments,".. pointing out the symbolic aspects of management may make those symbolic activities less effective and may indeed call into question the legitimacy of the administrative activity itself, and, by extension, its study and teaching."(18) This circumstance is not ameliorated by some philosophical discovery but by political action within the university.

Finally, as concerns the maintenance of philosophical traditions, it is time we cast off the visual metaphor that imprisons our theorizing. Understanding someone is not "seeing more clearly" what someone means, but making connections that enable cooperation. We don't have to get clearer on policy. Heslep's fixation on clarity is the old Cartesian compulsion in pursuit of the Platonic dream.


Human beings, often lacking, even eschewing, knowledge or consensus, avail themselves of a problematic substitute: policy. But policy, depending upon one's pursuits, can be either boon or bane.

Policy may facilitate social coordination, but it usurps individual powers of judgment. Policy offers the blandishments of community to anesthetize the inflictions of a Procrustean collectivity.

Policy may conserve energy by dismissing the commonplace from the purview of negotiation. It provides a foundation of stability, of certainty that little things will not receive an undue amount of our limited attention: a benefit, except to the one getting short shrift.

Policy frees us from trivia, e.g. other people's concerns, so we may pursue "larger objectives" while at the same time obscuring the assumptions that make pursuit of those larger objectives seem a necessity,

To the extent that ends and means are clear and not in dispute, so is policy unnecessary. A carpenter may need technique, but certainly no policy for addressing a board with the blade of his saw. An absolute monarch needs no policies although he may pretend to have them, for policy tends to reify will and obscure the fact that some very particular someone is served by it.

A major function of policy is organizational discipline; thus it may not necessarily facilitate an organization's purported goals. As organizational processes become institutionalized, the incongruity between what is expected and what is efficient is maximized. Policy in highly institutionalized organizations is primarily ritual.

Policy, nonetheless, may be a necessary evil. It derives from our limited capacity for knowledge and the compromises to our personal authority we concede in our pursuit of social intercourse.



(1) Richard Rorty "Pragmatism and Philosophy" in Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (eds.) After Philosophy. End or Transformation? (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987)

(2) Rorty, p.60.

(3) Robert D. Heslep "Conceptual Sources of Controversy about Educational Policies" Educational Theory Vol.37. No. 4 (Fall 1987) p 432.

(4) Thomas C. Schelling The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1966) p.5

(5) Heslep, 431- 432.

(6) Heslep, p. 428.

(7) Heslep, p. 429.

(8) Heslep, p.426.

(9) Heslep, p.428

(10) Heslep, p.432.

(11) See Terence Deal and Martha Wise, "Planning, Plotting, and Playing in Education's Era of Decline" p.451?472 in J. Victor Baldridge and Terence Deal (eds.) The Dynamics of Organizational Change in Education. (Berkeley, CA: McCutchan, 1983).

(12) See John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony" American Journal of Sociology vol 83, no. 2 for elaboration on this point.

(13) On the degeneration of production in institutions, see Lynne G. Zucker "Organizations as Institutions" in Samuel B. Bacharach (ed.) Perspectives in Organizational Sociology: theory and research (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1981) Also, Arthur Wise, "Why Educational Policies Often Fail: the hyperrationalization hypothesis" Journal of Curriculum Studies 9:1 (1977) pp. 43 - 57.

(14) Policies effect premissing in organizations. See James J. March and Herbert A. Simon Organizations (New York: Wiley, 1958) about premissing.

(15) See Schelling pp.22 - 25 on constraints that enhance negotiation.

(16) Robert K. Merton in March and Simon, p. 41 Merton holds that policy-governed behavior reduces sensitivity to individual differences.

(17) A particularly good article on ceremonial functions is John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony" American Journal of Sociology vol 83, no. 2

(18) Jeffrey Pfeffer, "Management as Symbolic Action: The Creation and Maintenance of Organizational Paradigms" Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol 35 (JAI Press, 1981) pp. 1 - 52. See for example the comments by Albert Pondi on how dangerous James G. March's theory of administrative ritual is in James G. March How We Talk and How We Act: Administrative Theory and Administrative Life, Seventh David D. Henry Lecture (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois, 1980).