Writing, Being, and Knowing: A Working Theory of Writing as an Ontological Act

Submitted by: Robert P Yagelski
Abstract: According to the Call for Papers for the 2019 ARLE Conference, “It is through the mediating function of language that identity is built, that action and relationship abilities are consolidated, that knowledge is developed and communicated.” These connections among language, identity, and knowing are well established in philosophy (Newen and van Riel, 2012) and have influenced thinking in education. Less well explored is the role of writing, as a technology for language, in identity formation, knowing, and being. In formal education, writing is understood primarily as a cognitive process or a social activity. But writing can also be understood as epistemic (Berlin, 1987) and ontological (Yagelski, 2011). It is a form of knowledge-making as well as an ontological process whereby we express our very being in the world and thus plays a uniquely powerful role in identity formation.
This theoretical paper will explore the ontological dimensions of writing and examine the implications for educators of a perspective that accounts for the relationships among writing, identity, and being. Drawing on philosophy, discourse theory (Ivanic, 1999), and studies of writing self-efficacy (Pajares, 2003), the presenter will show how writing is an orchestration of language skills encompassing oracy and literacy and involving both body and intellect that shapes the writer’s sense of self in relation to the world. Because writing pedagogies in formal schooling rest on narrower cognitive or social theories of writing, they exclude the transformative possibilities of writing as a means of identity formation. The working theory presented in this paper thus represents a necessary alternative to the way writing is understood and practiced in mainstream schooling.


Berlin, J. (1987). Rhetoric and reality. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Ivanic, R. (1998): Writing and identity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing

Newen, A., and van Riel, R. (Eds.). (2012). Identity, language, & mind: An introduction to the philosophy of John Perry. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Pajares, F. (2003). Self-efficacy beliefs, motivation, and achievement in writing. Reading & Writing Quarterly 19(2), 139-158.

Yagelski, R. P. (2011). Writing as a way of being. New York: Hampton Press.

Keywords: Writing theory, identity, writing pedagogy, self-efficacy.