Motivation as Ethical Self-Formation

Matthew Clarke, Barbara Hennig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Motivation is a concept more frequently found in venues concerned with educational psychology than in ones concerned with educational philosophy. Under the influence of psychology, and its typically dualistic way of making sense of the world, motivation in education has tended to be viewed in dichotomous terms, for example, as intrinsic or extrinsic in character. Such psychology-derived theories of educational motivation operate within a dichotomous ontology, traceable to structuralist notions of agency versus (rather than within) structure, while exemplifying the tendency in psychology that philosopher R. S. Peters identified over half a century ago, of seeking to provide totalizing, comprehensive theories of human behaviour in emulation of the achievements of the natural sciences. This article offers an alternative reading of motivation in terms of Foucauldian ethical self-formation that attempts to recognize motivation as arising from the individuals’ socially situated and constrained agency, and that focuses on how individuals pursue learning as a way of creating a particular desired version of the self. We illustrate this approach through a vignette of Wolfgang, a Hong Kong learner of German as a third language. Although we are certainly not seeking to supplant other approaches to theorizing motivation, we believe that the approach we elaborate here contributes significantly to the repertoire of motivational research in education.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-90
JournalEducational Philosophy and Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012


  • Motivation
  • foucault
  • identity
  • psychology
  • philosophy


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