The Weight of Dogmatism: Investigating “Learning” in Dewey’s Pragmatism and Wittgenstein’s Ordinary Language Philosophy

  • Viktor Johansson


What is it to learn something? This essay is an attempt to give a treatment of our expectations and wants from an answer to that question by placing Dewey’s pragmatism and Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy in conversation with each other. Both Dewey and Wittgenstein introduce philosophical visions and methods that are meant to avoid dogmatic responses to such questions. Dewey presents a vision of learning based on the view of the human organism transacting in its environment and in that way being involved with education without any other end than continual growth. By suggesting possible results of a Wittgensteinian investigation of our use of the word “learning ”, the essay also proposes a twist on Dewey’s theory of learning, which dissolves our need for a theory of learning as an answer to the question. This gives the child a voice in contexts where the word “learn” is used. An investigation of the use of “learn” becomes a method of releasing us from the dogmatic requirements that determine what learning is. Further, Dewey’s terminology comes to comprise examples of possible uses rather than being a statement as to what learning is.


Wittgenstein Dewey Learning Ordinary language philosophy Dogmatism 

1 “Attach a Weight to Your Foot”

What is it to learn something? Some would say that this question cannot be solved by philosophy, but by empirical investigations. Philosophers of education want to ask what it is we are empirically investigating. What kind of phenomenon is this? Someone may suggest that we simply define what we mean by “learning ” and then investigate what falls under such a definition. Someone else may suggest that we specify what we mean by learning something particular, such as reading, fencing, walking, calculating, or the Aristotelean concept of virtue. Wouldn’t that make the question researchable? For others what learning is may not be a concern. They may want to define it to set up criteria for assessing educational practices or students’ achievements in schools and preschools. We want to be able to tell when a student is learning to read.

This “want” to tell what learning is can blind us. We may fall for the temptation to set ontological and epistemological requirements for how we use a word like “learning” and seek justifications for such requirements: “A dogmatism we so easily fall into when doing philosophy ”, as Wittgenstein put it (PI §131).1 He describes his aim in philosophy as trying to overcome “difficulties having to do with the will, rather than the intellect” (CV, p. 17). However, since we are limited by preconceived ideas about learning , which obscures our acknowledgement of the variations in how the concept of “learning” functions in our lives, such philosophising is tough.

In this essay, I will sketch out Dewey’s pragmatic view of learning as a response to our need to lay down metaphysical requirements for learning . In order to uphold a Deweyan view of learning without reverting to dogmatic metaphysics , we need a philosophical method that destabilises philosophical accomplishments. This essay places Dewey in conversation with Wittgenstein (read through Cavell) in order to dissolve our wish to say something philosophically constructive about learning.

Following Wittgenstein’s turn to our use of words in ordinary language can be seen as a practice that is meant to maintain a vision uncontaminated by metaphysical assumptions. Surely, Dewey’s philosophy is arguably also anti-metaphysical and anti-foundational (Rorty 1979, pp. 5–7, 228–229, 367–368). But even an anti-metaphysical and non-foundational philosophy can lay down requirements for learning . Wittgenstein’s aim in philosophy goes deeper than replacing dogmatic metaphysics with anti-foundationalism . Consider this remark from 1937: “I am not thinking of these dogmas as determining men’s opinions but rather as completely controlling the expression of all opinions”. Wittgenstein not only attacks dogmatic opinions, but also dogmatic preconceptions of what can be expressed. He is not attacking one dogmatic view, say of learning as a reconstruction of a mental map or even learning as doing, but even dogmatisms in anti-foundationalist visions of learning . He continues:

People will live under an absolute, palpable tyranny, though without being able to say they are not free. … For dogma is expressed in the form of an assertion, and is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be said to harmonise with it; admittedly more easily in some cases than others. It is not a wall setting limits to what can be believed, it is rather like a brake which, however, practically serves the same purpose; it’s almost as though someone were to attach a weight to your foot to restrict your freedom of movement. This is how dogma becomes irrefutable and beyond the reach of attack. (CV, p. 28)

When we think of dogmatism in our want for requirements of learning , it is not enough to struggle against the wall of metaphysical preconceptions in search of anti-foundational alternatives. We must struggle against our very need, or want, for such requirements and preconceptions. Although Dewey is helpful in tearing down walls that limit our views of learning , such tearing down may blind us to the heavy metaphysics that is attached to our foot. We may still want to assert something about learning. Hence, we need to focus our attention to our feet. In Wittgenstein’s later philosophy , looking at our feet means looking at our ordinary language . To get a clear view of the role learning has in our lives, we investigate our ordinary use of words like “learning ”. In this essay, I practice Dewey’s pragmatism and Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy together (cf. Hutchinson and Read 2013, p. 170).

2 Philosophy and Metaphysical Pictures

Wittgenstein admits that his philosophy may appear destructive: “Where does our investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important?” His response: “what we are destroying are only houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language upon which they stood” (PI §118). What is Wittgenstein destroying? Consider, for example , how Deleuze and Guattari describe philosophy as art or an activity, however imprecise or historicised, of “forming, inventing and fabricating concepts” (1994, p. 2). The history of philosophy can be read in this way. In philosophy , concepts are created “as a function of problems which are thought to be badly understood or badly posed (pedagogy of the concept)” (ibid., p. 16). No wonder Deleuze called Wittgenstein “a philosophical catastrophe” and Wittgenstein’s followers “assassins of philosophy” (Deleuze 2011).

Without delving more into Deleuze and Guattari’s view of philosophy, one may say that the Wittgensteinian position I am proposing here, despite some other affinities with them, goes in the opposite direction. For Wittgenstein , what leads philosophers to nonsense is this drive to respond to problems by creating new concepts or transforming old ones. The problems we are dealing with, philosophical problems, arise not because we do not have the right words, but because the words we are using when forming the problem “arise when language is, as it were, idling, not when it is doing work” (PI §132). The problem with the concept creation view of philosophy is that it assumes that by creating concepts, we can lay down in advance what it is we are thinking about—that philosophical concepts have a particular status in that they can solve certain types of problems, as if the problems will disappear as long as we can conceptualise them in satisfying ways, like the turns of thought in solving a riddle.

If there is something to Wittgenstein’s story, what can philosophy do? It can liberate us from metaphysical weights attached to our feet, from the laying down of requirements and the philosophical creation of concepts. The dogmatic bonds that we are destroying are the preconceptions of a phenomenon that make us think the phenomenon needs a philosophical explanation or that it involves a problem to be solved by philosophy (Diamond 1991, pp. 22–23, 33). Destroying those pictures allows us to leave things as they are and instead give an honest account of our lives, our uses of words, our practices . This method of ordinary language philosophy is in this sense autobiographical: it tells stories of our lives and lets those stories dissolve our philosophical problems by making visible the idleness, emptiness and nonsensicality of our metaphysical requirements.

Taking a Wittgensteinian stance on learning means to liberate the word “learning” from philosophy and metaphysics . But, Wittgenstein needs conversational partners. Although learning is a subject that is present throughout Wittgenstein’s later work, the stories that he tells are in the service of liberating us from other kinds of requirements by reminding us of the everyday struggle to learn words and concepts. He is not primarily investigating the use of “learn” or “learning ” or trying to dissolve metaphysical pictures of learning. Therefore, let us put Wittgenstein in conversation with Dewey.

3 Dewey’s Learning Without Fixed Ends

Dewey often uses words such as “growth”, “change”, “experience”, “adaption”, “inquiry ” and, of course, “education ”. These notions go in different directions and explicate various aspects of what Biesta and Burbules call Dewey’s experimental theory of learning . The theory is based on the idea that the human animal, like any living being, has an “experimental way of establishing coordinated transactions” in its environment (Biesta and Burbules 2003, p. 37). Learning is a form of establishing new habits and a reconstruction of old habits. “It is learning in the sense of acquisition of a complex set of predispositions to act” (ibid.). This links Dewey’s ideas of knowledge as action, transactional experience and educational practice in understanding acquisition of knowledge as inquiry —a sequential process rooted in life itself.

If human beings, like all other animals, transact in their environment and continually transform the established ways of such transactions, then learning and education become non-teleological. There cannot be a final end to such transformation since the growth it involves is in response to new happenings in the environment and as such changes the environment, which means that all habits and established practices will be disrupted. Therefore, Dewey can say: “Since in reality there is nothing to which growth is relative save more growth, there is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education” (1916, p. 58).

Dewey’s emphasis on intellectual and scientific inquiry as an openness to explore the unknown redirects our attention to which abilities are conditional to a capacity to grow. Immaturity is understood as a capacity to grow and a capacity to sustain life—which is why Dewey can say such things as “for certain moral and intellectual purposes adults must become as little children” and “[w]ith respect to sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness and openness of mind, we may say that the adult should be growing in childlikeness” (Dewey 1916, p. 55). The aim of learning is not maturity or adulthood or a final state of mastery of a technique or a practice. “When we abandon the attempt to define immaturity by means of fixed comparison with adult accomplishments, we are compelled to give up thinking of it as denoting lack of desired traits” (1916, p. 56). There is no metaphysical requirement determining the goal of growth. To be learning something is to be set on a path of growth (1916, p. 58).

In his effort to overcome the dualism between the individual and the social, Dewey argues that “full education comes only when there is a responsible share on the part of each person, in proportion to capacity, in shaping the aims and policies of the social groups to which he belongs” (Dewey 1920, p. 199). For Dewey, it is impossible to talk about an individual as growing outside an environment consisting of both the social and the physical (Dewey 1920, p. 193 cf. Read 2007, pp. 5–22). The idea is that growing in an environment not only puts into question the individual–social dualism ; like Wittgenstein’s notions of “natural history” and “form of life”, it also dissolves the culture –nature divide. The growth of an organism, a plant, a human or other animal is a result of responding and reacting to an environment, consisting as much of stones, rocks, trees, bodies and brains as social pressures, norms and value systems. The environment of a human organism is cultural–natural and as such not a synonym for “mere nature ”. Not only do we have a dualism of natural or sociocultural phenomena that affect the organism, but we also have a plurality of different environments with immense variation (Read 2007, p. 14). Thinking of environments as a way of avoiding metaphysical assumptions about the individual–social and nature –culture divides also dissolves the idea of an individual learner or inquirer separate from his or her environment. As part of the environment, every inquiry involves a growth or transformation of the whole environment, however small. Determining ends for growth will be incomprehensible since the conditions for growth would always change due to the growing and evolving environment. Dewey maintains that education should involve children in the process of inquiry and in this way children can “take charge of themselves” and “not only adapt themselves to the changes which are going on, but have power to shape and direct those changes” (1897, p. 60).

Dissolving the assumptions of clear distinctions between particular learners and their environment implies a distinctive view of growth that is salient when we consider Dewey’s pragmatic understating of action and the world of things. The individual and reality is a result of a transactional whole where the mind and world as separate entities are not the presumed points of departure for a philosophical exploration of the nature of reality and knowledge (1925, p. 28). The transactional whole out of which both the individual and her environment emerge establishes what Dewey calls experience.

Yet, this take on Dewey is so far too epistemological. Jim Garrison reminds us that experience is first and foremost a practical matter: “Experience is what happens to a sentient creature in its reciprocally transforming transactions with its natural environment, including the human created world of language and institutions we call culture ” (2013, p. 7). Experience is a form of practice —a deed where we put “art and creation first”, preceding the intellectual or epistemological:

It would then be seen that science is an art, that art is practice , and that the only distinction worth drawing is not between practice and theory, but between those modes of practice that are not intelligent, not inherently and immediately enjoyable, and those which are full of enjoyed meanings . (Dewey 1925, pp. 268–69)

Intellectual work or scientific inquiry becomes an embodied art for Dewey. Conceptual learning becomes a practical matter. For him, learning is an open-ended art. Learning becomes a continual process of inquiry in everyday habits, a result of the immaturity of the organism and its environment.

4 A Wittgensteinian Twist on Pragmatic Metaphors

Dewey’s avoidance of the metaphysics of learning is interweaved with his view of an intellectual fallacy in Western philosophy.

By “intellectualism” as an indictment is meant the theory that all experiencing is a mode of knowing, and that all subject -matter, all nature , is, in principle, to be reduced and transformed till it is defined in terms identical with the characteristics presented by refined objects of science as such. The assumption of “intellectualism” goes contrary to the facts of what is primarily experienced. (Dewey 1925, p. 28)

To Dewey, intellectualism, not to be confused with Dewey’s use of “intelligent”, leads to superficial simplifications in philosophy. In thinking about learning it presumes a foundation and a telos for learning based on a priori assumptions. Such tendencies, particularly in modern times, have become chains that are, like Wittgenstein’s weights, so natural “that they are not even felt” (Dewey 2012, p. 257). This means that in certain forms of philosophising, we are tempted to forget that “[t]he philosopher is first and last a human being with his own intellectual and emotional habits who is involved in a concrete scene having its own colour of tradition; its own occupations and dominant desires; its own overhanging problems and preferred ways of meeting them” (ibid., p. 33).

Wittgenstein shares this view of philosophy’s tendency for intellectualism. To Wittgenstein, however, the tendency to forget that the philosopher is a human being, a growing organism, is not only a problem with professional philosophy , but also a result of our lives with languages. “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language , and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably” (PI §115). Therefore, the source of philosophy’s bounds, metaphysical pictures and requirements, is not only philosophy’s tendency to forget the human animal in its cultural contexts , but also the way we are speaking and living seems to inescapably disconnect us with that same life. Although we may resolve philosophical pictures and destroy the metaphysical buildings we build, they will reoccur in new forms.

The emphatic variance between Dewey’s and Wittgenstein’s view of what we can do about the philosophical tendency towards intellectualism reveals a radical difference in temperament of their thinking. In Dewey, there is still hope for philosophy to do something constructive. In Dewey, we find an attempt to form a philosophy that is free from metaphysical requirements. In Wittgenstein’s later work, there is no such hope for philosophy. There the task of philosophy is not only to found a philosophy free from metaphysical requirements, but also to treat our very need for such requirements by freeing us from philosophy —to remove the weight from our feet. Nevertheless, even this task is hopeless since the very means we have to do so is the same language that inexorably repeats the pictures to us. We cannot finally escape the captivations and temptations of our own thought and language . Rather, in “philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there” (CV, p. 65).

In philosophy of education , this means that Dewey can write a new creed, a pedagogical credo, something constructive—a novel vision of what education can be about. In Wittgensteinian philosophy of education , there can be no such creeds, only confession, an honest account, of all our faults, temptations, hopes and desires, and the metaphysical presuppositions in which we are entangled.

Does Dewey’s new creed, his creative and constructive philosophy , disguise other metaphysical requirements and pictures? The focus on future behaviours, say applications of concepts in further context , may seem an innocent step, a step pragmatists share with Wittgensteinians—that is, basically the pragmatic metaphor of concepts as tools that we use for particular purposes, for doing things, which of course is an idea that we find in ordinary language philosophy in both its Austinian and Wittgensteinian forms. Nonetheless, the different temperaments and styles brought into their writing bring the tool/use-metaphor into play in quite different ways. Consider how Dewey uses the metaphor in Democracy and Education: “In short, the sound h-a-t gains meaning in the same way that the thing ‘hat’ gains it, by being used in a given way. And they acquire the same meaning with the child which they have with the adult because they are used in a common experience by both” (Dewey 1916, p. 19, emphasis added). He continues: “The guarantee for the same manner of use is found in the fact that the thing and the sound are first employed in a joint activity, as a means of setting up an active connection between the child and the grown-up” (ibid.). For Dewey, the meaning of an utterance emerges out of what we do with it, in our transactions with it. Speaking is one of the many ways in which some organisms live in their environments. He is aware of the risk of meaning scepticism —if I use a word to do something, I cannot know whether others understand what I am doing or whether they use the word that same way—thus, Dewey thinks that a word is meaningful because it is “common experience”. The use of a word, its value as a tool, emerges out of a practice that involves a community of speakers with shared experiences.

Similarly, Wittgenstein writes: “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning ’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language ” (PI §43 emphasis added). Notice Wittgenstein’s twist on the tool metaphor . Wittgenstein investigates “meaning ” not by telling us what makes something meaningful, or even for a basis of meaning in use or common action. Rather, Wittgenstein starts with how we employ or use the word “meaning ” before drawing any other conclusions. He starts investigating before he can even speak of how to investigate. His investigation investigates how to investigate. Later he writes: “One cannot guess how a word functions”. Not even the word “meaning ”. “One has to look at its use and learn from that. But the difficulty is to remove the prejudice which stands in the way of doing this. It is not a stupid prejudice” (PI §340).

Wittgenstein is not trying to explain that what makes words meaningful is their use. He investigates different uses of words, not only in actual practices but also in what happens when we take them outside of practices , whether they can have a point for us, for me, in different contexts , to see what we may learn from that. Such investigations are, of course, a challenging task. It is difficult to be honest about how we use words, how we think and what we do. Still, this is all we need to do. We do not need to explain anything. In Stephen Mulhall’s words, “This suggests that Wittgenstein is not proposing that we picture meaning as use, but rather that, if we answer the question of how a word is used, then we will have no inclination to inquire about, or to attempt to picture, its meaning” (Mulhall 2001, p. 42). Wittgenstein , unlike Dewey, does not say that the meaning of the word is its use. There are no metaphysical requirements for “meaning ”, no claim about “meaning”, but rather referring to use is a methodological claim about how to do philosophy, a method that he actually tests in his investigations of uses of words.

As in Dewey, Wittgenstein’s child is sometimes described as learning to master a technique, but Wittgenstein’s child is also involved in philosophy’s methodological struggle about meaning . Learning words is not a matter of learning how to use words, but is more a matter of learning methods for investigating uses of words, what words may do. Learning words is like learning a philosophical method. Therefore, Dewey’s starting point is turned around; we do not start to think about what learning and meaning can be, the philosophical intellectualism both Wittgenstein and Dewey detest. We start by looking at how we use the words “meaning ” and “learning ”, where such words have a point in our actual lives. This philosophical method involves a form of dramatic struggle between looking at a linguistic community’s conventional practices and uses, and looking at my own idiosyncratic employment of words, a struggle that, if we acknowledge the autobiographical dimension of such philosophical methods, spills over into my view of myself as learner . Or to put in more Deweyan lingo, if we start with the methods of philosophical inquiry as a matter of investigating our use of words, we start with not only a realisation that we are describing human organisms transacting in environments, but also a realisation that my present philosophical inquiry is an inquiry into an environment. Philosophy (of learning ) becomes personal, about my life.

Reading Wittgenstein , and reading Dewey through Wittgenstein, is not only about reading to understand theories and his reasons for rejecting theories, but is also about reading a drama—a drama of multiple voices trying to get a grip on human nature and practices , constantly losing that grip and returning to the activities themselves, feeling content in these ordinary practices , feeling discontent and moving on. By using the “protagonist’s self-imaginations ”, Wittgenstein “moves at a level that is deeper than that of arguing about theses, as the basis of the possibility of holding any view about anything at all is continually queried and required” (Eldridge 1997, 15).

5 Towards a Grammar of Learning

If we look at how we use words such as “learn” and “teach”, a radical vision of learning and teaching may emerge. Investigating use involves presenting “objects of comparison” that shed light on “distinctions which our ordinary forms of language easily makes us overlook”, making plain our “preconceived ideas” and the “dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy” (PI §131–32). Accordingly, we cannot presume there to be any other criteria for when learning occurs other than what we find in our own application of the concept “learn”. Here is where the problem with Dewey’s view lies. If the growth and processes of transactive inquiry are taken as metaphysical criteria for learning, just as “meaning as use” can for meaning, then it can become a preconceived idea that can miss other complexities in how we live with the concept of learning.

Any theory of mind, language or learning would, in a sense, become regulatory, dogmatic (Eldridge 1997, p. 2). A philosophical theory of learning , in this sense, could not recognise the struggle of testing our claims involved in using a term like “learn”, since a theory would offer directions and definitions for what it means to learn something. Having said this, we should be aware of our need for such theories, which is the incitement for our theorising.

Dewey stresses the significance of both the limitations of the inheritance of the practices of adulthood and the playfulness of childhood :

Thus the artistic capacities of the adult exhibit what certain tendencies of the child are capable of; if we did not have the adult achievements we should be without assurance as to the significance of the drawing, reproducing, modelling, coloring activities of childhood . So if it were not for adult language , we should not be able to see the import of the babbling impulses of infancy. But it is one thing to use adult accomplishments as a context in which to place and survey the doings of childhood and youth; it is quite another to set them up as a fixed aim without regard to the concrete activities of those educated. (Dewey 1916, p. 115)

Although some of Dewey’s insight here seems to be correct—education is concerned both with inheritance and with newness—there is something important that is missing in Dewey’s account. That is the voice of the child (Cavell 2003, p. 218).

Although Dewey scrupulously investigates different ideas about education and learning , he is not equally attentive to his style in expressing them. Although he submits to a use of “theory” of meaning , he does not always first turn to ordinary uses of words as a method for philosophical inquiry . In Cavell’s words “It might be worth pointing out that these teachings [the impossibility of a private language and the emphasis on functions and contexts of language ] are fundamental to American pragmatism ; but then we must keep in mind how different these arguments sound, and admit that in philosophy it is the sound which makes the difference” (Cavell 2002, p. 35). Wittgenstein , on the other hand, though not directly engaged in educational issues, lends his philosophy to give voice to the struggles of childhood . The sound of childhood is crucial to both the style and the content of his later philosophy. For him, looking at children’s struggles in finding their way into adult communities is a way to investigate what we mean by words in the context of their use. He reminds us of children’s responses to instruction and the fragility of the attunement between the child, the teacher and the community. In Philosophical Investigations (PI), Wittgenstein explores different variants of what it can mean to follow an instruction to continue to write down series of numbers. The child can refuse to go on the way its teacher expects her to. She does not have to conform to our established use of words and numbers (PI §185). In those refusals, or misunderstandings, Wittgenstein is careful to give voice to the pupil’s attempts, even describing them as “a systematic mistake”, or “a variant” (PI §143).

These scenes are often taken as examples of rule following , but what Wittgenstein says he is exploring is the grammar of “know” and its relatives. A methodological remark in the midst of the discussion of these scenes clarifies the emphatic difference between Wittgenstein and Dewey further:

The grammar of the word “know” is evidently closely related to the grammar of the words “can”, “is able to”. But also closely related to that of the word “understand”. (To have ‘mastered’ a technique.) (PI §150)

The scenes of instruction and the children’s voices in them in the Investigations connect the grammar “knowing” with “doing” or “being able to do something”. For Dewey, this connection is important. Knowing is acting. In Wittgenstein , these are not theoretical remarks for an alternative to traditional epistemology , but reminders of how we use words. In giving voice to the pupil’s attempts to go on with the teacher, Wittgenstein also appropriates questions about the use of “learn”; for instance, when asking: “What do I mean when I say ‘the pupil’s ability to learn may come to an end here’?” (PI §144). The voice of the child becomes a reminder for the philosopher of the importance of looking at our use of words. Attending to the voice of the child changes our “way of looking at things” (PI §144). The child speaks back to philosophy and makes us aware of the fact that our use of “know”, “learn” and “is able” is what is at stake, not metaphysical or epistemological conditions. We see grammatical rather than theoretical connections though an awareness of how the child is constrained when trying to make herself intelligible to us as much as we are to him/her. In a way, as Cavell emphasises, Wittgenstein’s attention to grammar acknowledges the child’s struggle for his or her elders’ acknowledgement of the child’s voice (Cavell 1996, p. 288).

Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy will not solve any pedagogical problems. He describes our various uses of “learning ”, what we mean by the word and our applications of the concept. What we need in a philosophy of learning is not a doctrine, but acknowledgement of our dual need to lead our “words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (PI §116) and to move beyond the present state of culture towards future cultures and “project our words into new contexts ” (Cavell 2002, p. 52).

As a consequence of the Wittgensteinian vision, we can never know beforehand what it would mean to learn or to have learnt something. “Learning ” is not only used as a word for conforming to a fixed pattern of societal norms, and nor is it limited to being used for merely dealing with problems in our transactions. The criteria for how we use “learn” may be expressed analogously to what Wittgenstein seems to have meant when he talked about his vision of certainty and corrections of our opinions: “Here once more there is needed a step like the one taken in relativity theory” (OC §305).2 In Philosophical Investigations , Wittgenstein famously claims that humans agree, or attune (to be more true to the German “übereinstimung”), in language, in forms of life, in judgments but not in opinions (PI §241–2).3 Even so, to Wittgenstein the fragility in the possibility of disagreement seems equally important.4 Dissonant moments or the threat of dissonance may tempt us to invoke metaphysical requirements, justifications and explanations (Cavell 1979: 31–3).

In an educational context , we might be tempted to say that the result of a process of learning is attunement in practice . In fact, sometimes Wittgenstein seems to say something like this.

Instruction in acting according to the rule can be described without employing “and so on”.

What can be described in this description is a gesture, a tone of voice , a sign which the teacher uses in a particular way in giving instruction, and which the pupils imitate. The effect of these expressions can also be described, again without calling “and so on” to our aid, i.e. finitely. The effect of “and so on” will be to produce agreement going beyond what is done in the lessons, with the result that we all or nearly all count the same and calculate the same.

It would be possible, though, to imagine the very instruction without any “and so on” in it. But on leaving school the people would still all calculate the same beyond the examples in the instruction they had. (RFM, VI, §45)

In most instruction of, for example , mathematical rules , an “and so on” seems to be implied. We say something to the effect of “This is how you apply the rule here and here and so on”. What is implied is that there are inestimable ways in which we may apply a rule and an infinite number of contexts in which we can use a word. Wittgenstein shows that agreement beyond the examples is the goal of these instructions that are contained in the actual teaching activity.

This is the step like the one in relativity theory. The aim of an instruction in mathematics could not be that the pupil arrives at a certain mental state or is successful in doing something determinate, but simply an attunement in practice . We can say that someone has learnt something—that he can read—when we are attuned and expect to continue to be attuned with that pupil in how we use letters, construct meanings , and so on in further contexts . There are no criteria beyond our attunement in use, and in practice , that we can come to agree on. Because when we determine the movements of two bodies in relation to each other in the theory of relativity (odd as it may sound), this means that we cannot, without taking the perspective of one or the other, determine who is changing: the student’s or the teacher’s, the community’s or the individual’s. The transformation taking place in learning processes is determined by whose use we are taking as a point of reference—mine or my student’s.

Does this mean that we end in learning scepticism—that we cannot know where to place learning? Or does the focus of common agreement put too much pressure on the individual to conform to the community, which makes learning a socialisation into heteronomous agreement? Not if we let go of the idea of agreement having a role in theory that justifies a certain view on learning . Remember Wittgenstein’s question: “Suppose one day instruction no longer produced agreement?” (RFM, VI, §45). Of course that day is already here and has always been here. Teachers are very much aware of the fact that their instructions quite often do not lead the teacher and the pupil to go on together. In science , in art and in politics —and in all aspects of human life, we fall in and out of tune. This, one may say, is the human drama expressed in Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy . When our use of the word “learn” is the topic of our philosophical investigations , we cannot even determine what extent we use “learn” to refer to a change in the child, the adult or the community. We are either attuned or we are not. Stating that the child has learnt to read can mean that we can go on together with numbers, texts, words and letters.

But what does it really mean if this is a claim about how we use the term “learn”? First, we test our use of the word “learn” and related terms. The ordinary language philosopher tests whether his or her uses corresponds with those of others. That is what Wittgenstein does in his later writings . Second, we test whether our uses of “learn” are representative for how others use it. In short, we test who the “we” are when we claim that we say so and so (cf. Johansson 2015). Third, this is quite distinct for how we use “learn” and its cousins and how such uses seem to be a step like that in relativity theory, it seems that in many cases when we employ words and concepts like “learn”, we also make claims for a future attunement with those who we claim are learning . We make claims for a future we.

An investigation of the use of “learn” lifts the weight of dogmatism from our feet. Rather than looking for requirements for determining when learning has taken place or for what learning is, we explore how and when we use the term in attunement or dissonance. In so doing, we can see that words like “learn” are used as claims about present and future attunement that rather than individual or communal or environmental change. This transforms Dewey’s pragmatism and gives children a voice in the process of their learning. If we carefully investigate the use of “learn”, Dewey’s idea of habit reconstruction and interaction in various environments, the dissolution of the distinction between the organism and the environment, and between the individual and the society, becomes even more radical. Looking at the use of “learn” becomes a method of releasing us from the dogmatic requirements determining what learning is. Even Dewey’s terminology comes to consist of examples of possible uses rather than theoretical remarks on learning.


  1. 1.

    Following convention, titles for Wittgenstein’s works are abbreviated (PI = Philosophical Investigations , OC = On Certainty, RFM = Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, CV = Culture and Value), with section (§) or page number (p.), with full citation and initials in the References.

  2. 2.

    For a complementary discussion of the educational aspects of this passage, see Stickney (2008).

  3. 3.

    There has been some discussion regarding how to translate Wittgenstein’s “übereinstimmung”. “Agreement” is common, but I follow Cavell’s suggestion in my use of “attunement”. See Cavell (1979: pp. 31–32).

  4. 4.

    See PI §§143–148, 185 and the discussion of rule-following and private language remarks in Johansson (2013, pp. 161–181).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Humanities, Education and Social SciencesÖrebro UniversityÖrebroSweden
  2. 2.School of Education, Health and Social StudiesDalarna UniversityFalunSweden

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