Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Education: A Feminist Reassessment

  • Claudia Schumann
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_402



Why should feminist philosophers of education take an interest in Wittgenstein? In 2006, Toril Moi diagnosed feminism and feminist theory alike as having been befallen by a “feeling of exhaustion” (Moi 2006, p. 1735). Today, in times when Beyoncé and Emma Watson publicly (re)claim the title of feminist and mainstream pop stars as Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga easily play with fluid gender expressions, feminism appears to be alive and thriving again. Above and beyond the question of how relevant these popular media examples actually are for furthering feminist politics and how deep their respective analyses cut, the impasse that Moi so poignantly described in her essay “‘I am not a feminist, but…’: How feminism became the f-word” is still not overcome, and her urge for feminist theory to reengage with “women who struggle to cope with everyday problems” (Moi 2006, p. 1739) is as timely as ever. Wittgenstein’s philosophy of the ordinary offers surprising tools for moving feminist theorizing into exactly this direction. Nevertheless, I chose to open this entry with two rather humbling quotes. They are fitting insofar as the task I will undertake in the following is a humbling endeavor, too. Both Hekman and Wittgenstein caution us against overweening expectations for the transformative work we can expect theory or, more specifically, philosophy to accomplish in relationship to practice, and they also caution that it is not through one singular or individual effort that such change will come about. The relationship between Wittgenstein’s philosophy and feminism is a difficult one. It is in no way obvious or straightforward how the two hang together. Wittgenstein himself was not a feminist, neither did he explicitly reflect on issues of gender equality and the like; yet, if approached with care, reading feminist philosophy and Wittgenstein together can prove extremely fruitful and can lead to challenging results for both Wittgenstein and feminist scholarship. Out of the multitude of stimulating discussions of Wittgenstein’s work from feminist perspectives, I have selected a few central and recurring themes which are of particular relevance to the kind of questions, problems, and challenges feminist thinking faces in educational contexts.

Philosophy, Theory, and Social Change: Wittgenstein on the Place of Theory and Critique

Education has not only named the processes of transformation of the life of an individual, but educational institutions have often been created and are continuously confronted with the public hope and expectation of delivering positive transformation for whole societies. It is therefore no surprise that the field of education and pedagogy has provided a welcome and important playground for critical feminist analysis as well as practical interventions for furthering girls’ and women’s empowerment. One apparent discord between Wittgenstein and feminist theorizing might be found in the way in which his analyses appear to draw attention to the limits rather than the possibilities of effecting change through theorizing, as when he proclaims that philosophy “leaves everything as it is” (Wittgenstein 1968, PI I, §124). Yet, this picture is not quite correct. Even if the limits of human knowledge and individual action are distinctly Wittgensteinian topics, a feminist reading of his writings can help us understand why it is so important to make a place for these limits in educational theorizing in order to avoid naïvely overestimating the powers of feminist educational interventions and in this way undermine or even reverse their own best intentions.

One of the prominent thoughts, which have inspired feminist philosophers, is Wittgenstein’s critique of the philosophical pursuit of an ideally transparent, abstract, logical language which is supposed to reveal and represent the true structure of reality beyond ordinary language: “We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” (Wittgenstein 1968 PI I, §107). In a similar vein, feminist materialist Donna Haraway states, “Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that transmits all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution” (Haraway 1991, p. 176). Already in 1933, Wittgenstein suggests in The Blue Book that the philosopher’s “craving for generality” produces confusions for which we need a cure. His late philosophy then understands itself as a form of therapeutic method which leads us back to the rough ground of the ordinary. The language games within which our words acquire their meaning have no ultimate, perfect, and unchangeable foundation, but they are nevertheless solidly grounded in our life forms. This has led some conservative philosophers, for example, J. C. Nyíri and Ernest Gellner, to interpret Wittgenstein as saying that since it is impossible to determine any ultimate rational foundation for human practices beyond “that’s how we do it” (Wittgenstein 1956, RFM II §74), we should cultivate a conservative attitude towards our own practices, and a nonjudgmental, tolerant attitude towards others’ traditions. However, also nonconservative authors such as Richard Rorty subscribe to a similarly relativist interpretation of Wittgenstein’s late philosophy only that here it is used to defend the possibility of radical social and political change (cf. Crary 2000).

Feminist philosophers do not necessarily lean on Rortyian relativist interpretations in order to argue for social and political change from a Wittgensteinian perspective. Even if Wittgenstein’s analyses lead him to point to the ultimate “groundlessness of our believing” (Wittgenstein 1977, OC §166), this is not to say that there is no place from which to raise or justify critique. His point is rather that there is no place above, beyond, or outside of language from which we can launch such criticism of established practices. He turns our heads back on those cases in our ordinary linguistic practices in which we successfully manage to raise legitimate, justified criticism, even if there is no ultimate safeguard which allows us to secure that our critique will be heard, that our justifications will be accepted as legitimate. When we avoid, what Naomi Scheman following Cavell calls the “Manichean reading of Wittgenstein on rules” (Scheman 1996, p. 386), we can understand Wittgenstein as revealing the apparent choice between a narrow objectivism on one side or embracing relativism on the other, between “super-idealized guidance or caprice” (David Pears in Scheman 1996, p. 386), as misleading.

Wittgenstein’s therapeutic endeavor to cure us from the idea of philosophy as developing theories which can then be “applied” is instead taken as an urge to understand philosophical theorizing as an effort to achieve clarity about contextualized examples and concrete situations of the infinitely varied, embodied, and lived experiences of women (cf. Moi 2015; Crary 2000; Scheman 1996). As Linda Zerilli states, the craving for generality is something that feminists are not immune to neither:

This craving is a product of centuries of philosophical and political thinking; it is a disposition to generalize against which feminists, working with and against that inheritance, are by no means invulnerable. What drove some feminists to produce unified categories that did not attend to the particular case was in part this craving for generality, a craving that animated the hegemonic strand of the feminist theoretical enterprise through the 1980s and into the 1990s and that continues to haunt it even today, if only in the form of its nemesis, the refusal of theory, be that skepticism or radical particularism. (Zerilli 2005, p. 35)

When we now take a look at some central debates within feminist epistemology between feminist objectivists and feminist skeptics, we will find that Wittgenstein’s broadening of our notions of objectivity and rationality offers a fresh perspective in steering these debates out of stilted and stifling oppositions.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophy and Feminism: Between Epistemology, Ethics, and Politics

It is well known that for Wittgenstein epistemological, moral, and political reflections overlap and intersect in his writings. They are not neatly separated from each other as they have been in more traditional systematic philosophies, but for the present purpose, it seemed useful to try to disentangle some of the various lines of thought. In the following, I will mostly focus on Wittgenstein’s later work in relation to which the feminist discussion has been most prolific, even if some interesting work on the Tractatus can also be found (e.g., Tanesini 2004, pp. 53–88; Cohen 2002). I will give some examples, respectively, for how central Wittgensteinian ideas have been useful to think about feminist epistemology, ethics, and politics. While this is by no means a comprehensive summary of the feminist discussion of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, I nevertheless hope to highlight some interesting points of overlap and mutual inspiration so as to encourage further engagement with his work by feminist philosophers of education.

Feminists have significantly drawn attention to how the traditional exclusion of girls and women from educational opportunities and institutions has led to limitations and biases in our scientific and historical bodies of knowledge almost exclusively produced by men and from male perspectives. Beyond claiming equal rights to education, striving to rectify the canon by lifting women’s voices and contributions, and showing how women scientists and scholars cannot only produce equally valid and interesting research and scholarship as men, but broaden, enhance, and improve our knowledge by actually taking women’s bodies, lives, and experiences into adequate account, feminists have also thought about knowledge in a philosophical sense. Early feminist standpoint epistemology drew on György Lukács’ idea that the structural conditions of workers’ lives afford them an epistemologically privileged position to gain an adequate picture of social relations in capitalist society, and argued that women similarly inhabit an epistemologically privileged position from which we can shed light on the objective reality of life in sexist societies. Hartsock’s (1983/1998) initial approach has been criticized by postmodernist, black, Latina, lesbian, and more recently queer theorists for building her theory on an essentialist idea of the category of “woman” thus overlooking and potentially excluding women who experience their lives in radically different ways due to differences in class, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, race, or religion. Later feminist standpoint theorists such as Sandra Harding (1991) have therefore moved away from the idea of a unified women’s standpoint to embrace a plurality of situated knowledges. In the debates between feminists who argued for the outright rejection of any claim to objectivity since they considered it tainted by flawed male ideals and those feminists who wanted to hold on to objectivity, in a reworked, broadened rendering, in order to be able to solidly ground their political demands for change, Wittgenstein has often been taken to align with the feminist skeptics and invited the charge of reducing epistemology to questions of power and politics. As Alice Crary shows, however, Wittgenstein can also be read differently, so that his “attack on an abstraction requirement is intended not to discredit the concept of objectivity per se but rather to correct what he sees as an inaccurate conception of it” (Crary 2007, p. 25). An objective and rational account of reality is not available from an ideal, abstract standpoint that disregards all subjective endowments. On the contrary, it might require the active and conscious cultivation of certain sensitivities, not least through education: “I want to say: an education quite different from ours might also be the foundation of quite different concepts. For here life would run on differently. […] In fact, this is the only way in which essentially different concepts are imaginable” (Wittgenstein 1967, Zettel §§ 387–8).

The postmodern emphasis on the internal complexity of the category of “woman,” the idea that gender is socially constructed rather than a biologically given binary identity and that “the gendered body is performative” (Butler 1990, p. 136), even if considered convincing on an ontological level, has prominently been contrasted with the need for a unified category of “woman” in order to advance feminist politics. Wittgenstein’s thought can provide helpful tools for rethinking the identity category of “woman” as a subject of and ground for feminist epistemology, ethics, and politics and for exploring the feminist foundations debates of the 1980s and 1990s from an angle which anticipates and aligns with contemporary conceptions. Hilde Lindemann Nelson (2002), for example, provides an insightful discussion of Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblance” in that regard. When we look at different instantiations of a concept, so Wittgenstein, we “will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that” (Wittgenstein 1968, PI §66). As feminist biologists and trans theorists have importantly brought to our attention, even the biological criteria for which kind of bodily and genetic constitutions count under the category of “woman” are much more diversified than previously thought. Of course, it is always possible to dismiss any divergences from a stipulated norm as a clinical aberrance to be dismissed as a mere exception. But current research has pushed even the medical community to take a more respectful stance towards the wide variety of intersex bodies and the interests of trans people.

The complexity increases even further if we leave these merely biological considerations and turn to feminism as concerned with the whole variety of women’s experiences. The kind of kinship relations which the idea of family resemblances invokes can help conceptualize a nonessentialist notion of “woman” not based on any core identity or fixed, exclusionary boundaries, and open to continuous change of the language game (cf. Nelson 2002). Linda Zerilli (2005, pp. 33–65) uses Wittgenstein’s concept of aspect-dawning in her discussion of Butler’s ideas on gender performativity and the question of the boundaries of the category “woman.” She takes his thoughts on aspect-seeing to explain that while “under ordinary circumstances we do not doubt” (2005, p. 58) whether the woman that I see in front of me on the train actually “is” a woman, it does not imply that we can never see the same person or situation under a different aspect. She interprets Butler’s account of drag as an “imaginative exercise” (Ibid.) which can provoke us to question the ways in which we have been introduced to the language game of distinguishing between men and women. The discussions put forth by queer theory in the last decades provide distinct examples for the relevance of Wittgenstein’s thinking to current social and political issues beyond a purely academic discourse. Following his philosophical critique carries the potential to unhinge the complete architecture of how we think about gender, sex, and sexuality.

Concluding Remarks: Refocusing the Character of Feminist Critique with Wittgenstein

When Wittgenstein writes about his own role as a critic: “It came into my head today as I was thinking about my philosophical work and saying to myself: ‘I destroy, I destroy, I destroy –’” (Wittgenstein 1980, CV p. 21), it evokes interesting parallels to Sara Ahmed’s figure of the “feminist killjoy”:

Let’s take this figure of the feminist killjoy seriously. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy? Does bad feeling enter the room when somebody expresses anger about things, or could anger be the moment when the bad feelings that circulate through objects get brought to the surface in a certain way? (Ahmed 2010, p. 65f.)

Beyond Ahmed’s point to not shoot the messenger, what unites both Wittgenstein and feminist negative-critical analyses is not only that they are undertaken with an earnest intention to reveal something correct about the reality we live in, but that they ultimately open new ways of understanding and living in this world in a thoroughly positive sense. Examples of the positive, constructive side of Wittgensteinian feminism can be found in Hekman’s (1995) extension of moral theory to embrace a multiplicity of moral voices, in Zerilli’s “freedom-centered feminism,” which, “after all, is concerned not with knowing (that there are women) as such, but with doing – with transforming, world-building, beginning anew” (2005, p. 65), in Crary’s (2000, 2007) urge to take the cultivation of our sensitivities as an integral part of objective moral judgment, in the refocusing of the role of embodiment (Tanesini 2004, pp. 114–121) and the “radical entanglement of affect and conceptual rationality” (Zerilli 2015, p. 282). What remains important in Wittgenstein’s destructive gestures, however, in my view resides mainly in the fact that it is not only “students [who] often think change comes easily” (Stickney 2014, p. 209), but also educators and educational theorists who underestimate the “complexity” (Ibid.) of transforming practice. If nothing else, then what Wittgenstein can help demonstrate is why formal, top-down educational reforms are insufficient to realize gender equality in schools. While it is important to incorporate lessons into the curriculum which actively engage with women’s struggle for emancipation and social and political equality, classes on diverse gender roles and sexualities beyond the heteronormative matrix, and courses on what constitutes sexual harassment and why it is more than a trivial offense, and while it is important to change the legal frameworks and school’s policies for gender equality, it is not enough. Ultimately, what we have to aim at is a change of our form of life together, a change in the kind of culture which we cultivate in our educational institutions, the kind of gender norms which we practice, enact, embody, and perpetuate together in our everyday lives as teachers, students, and administrators in schools, universities, and beyond.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden