Critical Theory and Transformative Learning: Rethinking the Radical Intent of Mezirow's Theory

Critical Theory and Transformative Learning: Rethinking the Radical Intent of Mezirow's Theory

Ted Fleming (Teachers College Columbia University, New York, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJAVET.2018070101
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Mezirow relies on the critical theory of Habermas to give his theory of transformative learning rigor. Yet critiques persist and focus on whether the theory has an adequate understanding of the social dimension of learning and whether it is overly rational. This article addresses these issues and explores relevant ideas from Habermas and Honneth. Critical theory has evolved and Honneth's theory of recognition has implications for transformative learning. Following the communicative turn of Habermas, Honneth makes recognition and freedom key concepts that contribute to developing transformative learning theory. Intersubjectivity and recognition become the necessary preconditions for critical reflection, discourse, democracy and transformative learning. Freedom is also reconfigured and these ideas address the main critiques of transformation theory.
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Jefferson, Marx, Gramsci, Dewey and Paulo Freire all note that democratic participation is a means of self-development and produces individuals who are more tolerant of difference, sensitive to reciprocity and more self-reflective (Mezirow, 2003). According to Dewey democracy “necessarily emerges on the condition of an antecedent intersubjectivity of social life” (Honneth, 1998, p. 767). Democracy and education presuppose each other.

Mezirow (1981) links transformative learning with the critical theory of Jürgen Habermas, a member of the Frankfurt School. His highly rational and abstract discourse and its rules influence transformation theory. Engaging in discourse requires the capacity to be critically reflective and the ability to engage in “critical dialectical discourse involving the assessment of assumptions and expectations supporting beliefs, values and feelings” (Mezirow, 2003, p. 60). Though Mezirow was aware of the Frankfurt School through the work of Schroyer (1975) and Jay (1973) he never fully adopted the critical theory of Habermas and this may have given traction to some of the critiques of transformative learning theory.

The theory of transformative learning views learning as having individual and social dimensions (Cranton & Taylor, 2012) and critiques argue that transformation theory has an inadequate understanding of the social (Clarke & Wilson, 1991; Collard & Law, 1989, 1992; Newman, 1993). Cranton & Taylor (2012) identify this as a continuing issue prompting clarifications and further development of the theory by Mezirow (1989, 1991a, 1995, 1996). Critics assert that Mezirow’s emphasis on the individual does not accurately represent the emphasis in Habermas’s work. According to Mezirow, they misunderstand transformation theory. This has prompted clarifications and further development of the theory (Mezirow, 2003). Transformation theory is built on two sets of assumptions. Firstly, there are humanistic and constructivist assumptions that focus on the individual as a unit of analysis (Cranton et al., 2012). Secondly, there are assumptions from critical theory that focus on the social as a unit of analysis (Brookfield, 2012; Mezirow, 1991b). Attempts have been made to address these comments (Fleming, 2014) and others argue that Mezirow was always convinced of the centrality of social justice (Rose, 2016).

Taylor & Cranton (2013) call attention to the continuing absence of theoretical developments in transformation theory. The high level of rationality, the demands of critical reflection, the developmental dividend of democratic engagements and the critiqued individualism of Mezirow’s theory can be better understood by a more detailed engagement with the critical theory of Habermas. This paper explores how the theories of Habermas and Honneth have recently evolved, explores how this addresses critiques and enhances the theory of transformative learning.

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