Thus, in the mind of Joseph Jacotot, a sudden illumination brutally highlighted what is blindly taken for granted in any system of teaching: the necessity of explication. And yet why shouldn’t it be taken for granted? No one truly knows anything other than what he has understood. And for comprehension to take place, one has to be given an explication, the words of the master must shatter the silence of the taught material.
And yet that logic is not without certain obscurities. Consider, for example, a book in the hands of a student. The book is made up of a series of reasonings designed to make a student understand some material. But now the schoolmaster opens his mouth to explain the book. He makes a series of reasonings in order to explain the series of reasonings that constitute the book. But why should the book need such help? Instead of paying for an explicator, couldn’t a father simply give the book to his son and the child understand directly the reasonings of the book? And if he doesn’t understand them, why would he be any more likely to understand the reasonings that would explain to him what he hasn’t understood? Are those reasonings of a different nature? and if so, wouldn’t it be necessary to explain the way in which to understand them?
So te logic of explication calls for the principle of a regression ad infinitum: there is no reason for the redoubling of reasonings ever to stop. What brings an end to regression and gives the system its foundation is simply that the explicator is the sole judge of the point when the explication is itself explicated. He is the sole judge of that, in itself, dizzying question: has the student understood the reasonings that teach him to understand the reasonings? This is what the master has over the father: how could the father be certain that the child has understood the book’s reasonings? What is missing for the father, what will always be missing in the trio he forms with the child and the book, is the singular art of the explicator: the art of distance. The master’s secret is to know how to recognize the distance between the taught material and the person instructed, the distance also between learning and understanding. The explicator sets up and abolishes this distance—deploys and reabsorbs it in the fullness of his speech.
This privileged status of speech does not suppress the regression ad infinitum without instituting a paradoxical hierarchy. In the explicative order, in fact, an oral explication is usually necessary to explicate the written explication. This presupposes that reasonings are clearer, are better imprinted on the mind of the student, when they are conveyed by the speech of the master, which dissipates in an instant, than when conveyed by the book, where they are inscribed forever in indelible characters. How can we understand this paradoxical privilege of speech over writing, of hearing over sight? What relationship thus exists between the power of speech and the power of the master?
This paradox immediately gives rise to another: the words the child learns best, those whose meaning he best fathoms, those he best makes his own through his own usage, are those he learns without a master explicator, well before any master explicator. According to the unequal returns of various intellectual apprenticeships, what all human children learn best is what no mater can explain: the mother tongue. We speak to them and we speak around them. They hear and retain, imitate and repeat, make mistakes and correct themselves, succeed by chance and being again methodically, and, at toto young an age for explicators to being instructing them, they are almost all—regardless of gender, social condition, and skin color—able to understand and speak the language of their parents.
And only now does this child who learned to speak through his own intelligence and through instructors who did not explain language to him—only now does his instruction, properly speaking, begin. Now everything happens as though he could no longer learn with the aid of the same intelligence he has used up until now, as though the autonomous relationship between apprenticeship and verification were, from this point on, alien to him. Between one and the other an opacity has now set in. It concerns understanding, and this word alone throws a veil over everything: understanding is what the child cannot do without the explanations of a master—laster, of as many masters as there are materials to understand, all presented in a certain progressive order. Not to mention the strange circumstance that since the era of progress began, these explications have not ceased being perfected in order better to explicated, to make more comprehensible, the better to learn to learn—without any discernible corresponding perfection of the said comprehension. Instead, a growing complaint beings to be heard: the explicative system is losing effectiveness. This, of course, necessitates reworking the explications yet again to make them easier to understand by those who are failing to take them in.
The revelation that came to Joseph Jacotot amounts to this: the logic of the explicative system had to be overturned. Explication is not necessary to remedy an incapacity to understand. On the contrary, that very incapacity to understand. On the contrary, that very incapacity provides the the structuring fiction of the explicative conception for the world. It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such. o explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself. Before being the act of the pedagogue, explication is the myth of pedagogy, the parable of a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid. The explicator’s special trick consists of this double inaugural gesture. On the one hand, he decrees the absolute beginning: it is only now that the act of learning will begin. On the other, having thrown a veil of ignorance over everything that is to be learned, he appoints himself to the task of lifting it. Until he came along, the child has been groping blindly, figuring out riddles. Now he will learn. He heard words and repeated them. But now it is time to read, and he will not understand words if he doesn’t understand syllables and he won’t understand syllables if he doesn’t understand letters that neither the book nor his parents can make him understand—only the master’s word. The pedagogical myth, we said, divides the world into two. More precisely, it divides intelligence into two. It says that there is an inferior intelligence and a superior one.