Wittgenstein and the Path of Learning

  • Michael Luntley


In this essay, I defend an individualistic reading of Wittgenstein on learning . Many scholars (Williams, Stickney, Simpson) read Wittgenstein as endorsing a broadly social initiation model of learning (see also, Derry and Bakhurst for a Vygotskian spin on this). The social initiation model looks inevitable if you endorse the orthodox assumptions about Wittgenstein’s treatment of linguistic regularity. The key assumptions are as follows: (i) linguistic regularity involves a normative practice with words; (ii) normativity is socially constituted; and (iii) learning involves acquiring these normative practices. Developing arguments started in my Wittgenstein : Opening Investigations (2015), I deny all three assumptions. Wittgenstein’s treatment of linguistic regularity is naturalistic, not normative; it involves users engaging with words in ways that are patterned, patterns in which words fit, but the concept of ‘fit’ requires no more than ‘primitive normativity ’ (Ginsborg 2011). What this amounts to is the following: learners ’ first encounters with things from which they acquire concepts are encounters shaped by the syntactic patterns that render things salient, patterns of rhythm, rhyme and repetition. These patterns are not the patterns of conceptual order, let alone a normative pattern; they are the patterns characteristic of aesthetic experience; they are the patterns of play and of games. In short, individuals learn by playing with the forms of aesthetic experience—playing with sounds and symbols is the basis for these things coming to bear content. This is not to deny that there is a transition from such patterns to conceptual patterns, but challenging the orthodoxy of assumption (i) leaves conceptual patterns inheriting much of the contingency of the shape of aesthetic patterns. In the Big Typescript , Wittgenstein compares a rule to a garden path. We walk paths with a sense of allegiance to the way to go, but without any prescriptive sense that we have to go this way rather than that. We are, in part, authors of the paths we take. Understanding Wittgenstein on learning involves coming to learn how to share his sense of being comfortable with the contingencies of word use and to stop looking for any sense that there are prescriptive norms governing what we learn to do with words.


Learning Primitive normativity Rules Know-how Imagination Aesthetic 


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WarwickCoventryUK

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