Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Wittgenstein’s Pedagogical Metaphors

  • Nicholas C. Burbules
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_405
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1961) is an argument for an austere, literal view of language. This core argument can be summarized by the following propositions:

(TLP 2) What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.

(TLP 4.1) Propositions represent the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.

(TLP 4.11) The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science…

The Logical Empiricists of the Vienna Circle took this argument as the basis for positivism: the view that language is a means for offering true statements about the world. Their “verification principle” asserted that a statement is meaningful only if there is a procedure for verifying whether it is true or not. Statements that do not fit this criterion are “nonsense.” Under such a definition, virtually all statements outside the realm of pure logic, mathematics, and empirical science are nonsense.

Wittgenstein believed, in fact, that a good deal of philosophy was nonsense (TLP 4.003), and that philosophy, by this definition, does not offer “propositions”:

(TLP 4.112) Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in “philosophical propositions,” but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.

Philosophical mistakes occur, Wittgenstein believed, when problems are phrased in ways that are not answerable, as formulated. The book ends with a simple assertion that reads like a koan from Zen Buddhism:

(TLP 7) What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

As many commentators have pointed out, however, this austere view of language is not supported by the Tractatus itself (Gill 1979, 1996; Maruta 2003; Nyiri 2010). Several of the key claims in the text are phrased in figurative language: one might call them analogies or similes, but here the author will use the most commonly used term, metaphors.

This fact suggests that the picture of language in the Tractatus is seriously incomplete, that even on its own terms it is not possible to maintain a purely literal language, and that the philosophical task of “elucidation” or “clarification of propositions,” as Wittgenstein carries it out, still relies on metaphors.

Here are three examples from the text. The first is Wittgenstein’s famous “picture theory” that a proposition is true if and only if it offers an accurate representation of the world:

(TLP 2.1) We picture facts to ourselves.

(TLP 2.11) A picture presents a situation in logical space, the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.

(TLP 2.12) A picture is a model of reality.

Here the most basic function of language – its essential function, on Wittgenstein’s account – can only be explained by comparing it to a nonlinguistic example. The following sections go into great detail about the way in which a picture (Bild) represents the world. At this crucial point (the question of truth), Wittgenstein relies on yet a further metaphor, a ruler:

(TLP 2.1511) That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.

(TLP 2.1512) It is laid against reality like a measure.

(TLP 2.15121) Only the end-points of the graduating lines actually touch the object that is to be measured.

Finally, in the penultimate passage of the book, another famous metaphor:

(TLP 6.54) My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

Here Wittgenstein acknowledges, in a strikingly self-referential way, that the very endeavor of elucidation, as he practices it, relies on the “nonsensical” (including, it appears, the use of language that directly violates the theory of referential truth argued for in the text). Even here, he relies on a metaphor, the ladder that, once it has served its purpose, we must “transcend” or throw away. Or can we? Jerry Gill summarizes this apparent paradox as follows:

Wittgenstein’s well known way of treating this difficulty is to take back with his left hand what he had offered with his right hand… Clearly the main feature of the difficulty is that metaphorical expression is the necessary foundation for more explicit expression. The ladder that enables us to move from no expression to explicit expression is metaphoric expression. Thus it is not the sort of ladder which can be kicked over. For we are still and always standing on it! (Gill 1979, pp. 273–274)

In his later work, Wittgenstein relies even more extensively (and, one might say, more unapologetically) on metaphors of many types. He says, in the Philosophical Investigations, (1958) “A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language produces a false appearance, and this disquiets us” (§112). And he writes in Culture and Value, (1980) “A good simile refreshes the intellect” (p. 1) and “What I invent are new similes” (p. 19). So it appears from these comments that certain similes (or metaphors) inhibit thought; The author regard PI §112 as closely linked with PI §115, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Certain figurations in language become clichéd, so familiar that their original intent becomes invisible to us (some call these “dead metaphors”). A cliché becomes an encumbrance to thought, whereas a new or fresh metaphor can cause us to view the familiar in a new light. Wittgenstein’s goal, he says, is to invent new similes. This suggests an indispensable role for figurative language, such as metaphor.

In Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor (PI §309), “What is your aim in philosophy? – To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle,” the fly-bottle is both a trap from which one is trying to escape, but also – because we are inside it and because it is transparent – a trap that we must first of all recognize as such. Here again there is a self-reflexive moment: you draw people’s attention to the fly-bottle they are in by using a metaphor; the novel figuration highlights the clichéd, static language that “holds us captive.” Whereas the conception of language laid out in the Tractatus suggests that figurative language is an aberration from the representative function of propositions (because as a proposition, a metaphor is – literally speaking – false), in the Investigations figurative language is just another “language-game,” one that operates by different rules from the literal – and constitutes an important, complementary, corrective to it.

Many have commented on the plethora of metaphors (analogies, similes, etc.) Wittgenstein uses in his later work. Although all of them will not be reviewed here, two aspects of these metaphors will be focused here: the first is the frequent use of tools as his metaphorical objects; the second is the way in which these metaphors frequently are used to depict educational processes (see also Peters et al. 2008).

Christopher Benfey, in a wonderful essay entitled “Wittgenstein’s Handles” (2016) draws attention to the work that Wittgenstein did in helping to design his sister Gretl’s house in 1926. Benfey quotes from Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein:

His role in the design of the house was concerned chiefly with the design of the windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. This is not as marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly, house its distinctive beauty. The complete lack of any external decoration gives a stark appearance, which is alleviated only by the graceful proportion and meticulous execution of the features designed by Wittgenstein…The details are thus everything, and Wittgenstein supervised their construction with an almost fanatical exactitude. (Monk 1991, p. 236)

It is not very surprising that Wittgenstein, trained as an engineer, would have an imagination that turned toward metaphors of handles, hinges, rulers, hammers, ladders, and spades. This much more pragmatic world view is captured in his famous aphorism (PI §43), “For a large class of cases – though not for all – in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language,” and the less well-known (PI §97): “Whereas, of course, if the words ‘language,’ ‘experience,’ ‘world,’ have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words ‘table,’ ‘lamp,’ ‘door.’” Wittgenstein makes the analogy of words with tools explicit:

(PI §11) Think of the tools in a tool-box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw-driver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. –The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.)

The last parenthetical comment is significant, because even the term “use” in the case of tools is not unambiguous. There is more than one way to use a tool, and more than one purpose to which a tool can be put; likewise, different tools can be used in similar ways. In On Certainty (1969), Wittgenstein asks, (OC §351) “Isn’t the question ‘have these words a meaning?’ similar to ‘Is that a tool?’ asked as one produces, say, a hammer? I say ‘Yes, it’s a hammer. But what if the thing that any of us would take for a hammer were somewhere else a missile, for example, or a conductor’s baton? Now make the application yourself.” Therefore, describing meaning as use does not straightforwardly settle the matter, since we still need to ask “What use?” and “For what purposes?” Wittgenstein highlights this problem with yet another tool metaphor:

(PI §12) It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. We see handles all looking more or less alike. (Naturally, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.

The handles all look alike, but they work in different ways and they accomplish different things. And here is the key point: the only way to learn these differences is by handling them and seeing the way they work. So if it is true that the meaning of a word is its use, then a corollary is that we learn the meaning(s) of a word by using it, and the same word can be used in different ways, for different purposes.

This discussion introduces the second theme the author want to highlight about Wittgenstein’s metaphors: they often have a pedagogical component, they ask us to reflect on how we learn something or learn to do something. In fact, the Investigations famously starts with a passage from Augustine about how he learned language – an account that Wittgenstein goes on to question.

Here again we encounter a range of metaphors. The best known from the Investigations is the idea of a “language-game”:

(PI §23) There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call “symbols,” “words,” “sentences.” And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten....Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.

Review the multiplicity of language-game in the following examples, and in others:

* Giving orders, and obeying them---

* Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements---

* Constructing an object from a description (a drawing)---

* Reporting an event---

* Speculating about an event---

* Forming and testing a hypothesis---

* Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams---

* Making up a story; and reading it---

* Play-acting---

* Singing catches---

* Guessing riddles---

* Making a joke; telling it---

* Solving a problem in practical arithmetic---

* Translating from one language into another---

* Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

---It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they are used, the multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language.(Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)

In this summary we see the key elements of Wittgenstein’s view of language: that whereas in the Tractatus language is for making propositional assertions about the world, and in which the aim is to state the truth (and where all else is “nonsense”), here language has an enormous variety of uses and purposes – games – each governed by different rules and criteria of success. The “language-game,” Wittgenstein says, consists of (PI §7) “the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven” – not just words, but activities in which language plays a part (what is sometimes termed in other contexts discourse or parole). Learning the “language-game” entails learning not only words but their uses in the context of human doings.

How does this learning occur? Here, not surprisingly, we encounter another metaphor. We learn to participate in a language-game, as with any game, by learning the rules. But what does it mean to follow a rule?

(PI §85) A rule stands there like a sign-post. – Does the sign-post leave no doubt open about the way I have to go? Does it shew which direction I am to take when I have passed it; whether along the road or the footpath or cross-country? But where is it said which way I am to follow it; whether in the direction of its finger or (e.g.) in the opposite one? –And if there were, not a single sign-post, but a chain of adjacent ones or of chalk marks on the ground– is there only one way of interpreting them?– So I can say, the sign-post does after all leave no room for doubt. Or rather: it sometimes leaves room for doubt and sometimes not. And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition, but an empirical one.

A sign-post is, like other tools and objects, something that can be used in different ways, some of those uses straightforward, others ambiguous. One might say, “just follow the sign-post” (or follow the rule), but Wittgenstein says, there might be more than one way of doing that. This is one consequence of viewing language-games in the context of human doings. One might say that in order to engage successfully in an activity one must follow the rules – but it is sometimes just as true to say that we learn what it means to follow the rules from learning to engage in the activity successfully. And to add a further layer of complexity, Wittgenstein says (PI §83): “And is there not also the case where we play and make up the rules as we go along? And there is even one where we alter them-as we go along.” The key, for Wittgenstein, is to be able to say “Now I can go on” (PI §179), that is, to show through successful participation in the activity that one has learned and understands the rules.

A key part of this view of rule-following is that, for Wittgenstein (PI §1), “Explanations come to an end somewhere.” This is not a model of learning like direct instruction, in which all steps can be made explicit and learned sequentially (Burbules 2008). Indeed even the successful practitioner of an activity may not be able to fully articulate how they are doing it:

(PI §217) “How am I able to obey a rule?” – if this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my following the rule in the way I do. If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”

My spade is turned. Another tool metaphor. And another moment of reflexivity, because figurative language also exceeds the boundaries of explanation: to attempt to fully explain a metaphor is to kill it. Figurative language is open-ended, suggestive. A metaphor is not a proposition that makes an assertion, but an invitation to consider the ways in which a comparison opens up an exploration of similarities and differences that shed light on the objects of comparison. Metaphor does not come with instructions, and there are different ways to use it and understand it. This open-endedness and indeterminacy is its virtue.

And that, the author is arguing here, is why Wittgenstein uses metaphor, especially in his later work: because it exemplifies a key point about language use as a kind of doing, and as directed to other important purposes than just the assertion of propositional truths. His tool metaphors especially highlight these questions of uses, purposes, and doings; and these in turn raise the question of how we learn these uses, purposes, and doings – an exploration which, again, itself relies on a series of metaphors (games, sign-posts, and ladders that need to be thrown away after one has climbed them).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Illinois, Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA