Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Allegedly Conservative: Revisiting Wittgenstein’s Legacy for Philosophy of Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_406


 Conservative;  Epistemology;  Practice;  Practitioner;  Researcher;  Wittgensteinian legacy

In section 124 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.” Given the unity of language-and-world and of what-we-say-and-do at the level of the language-game, it is easy to see how it gave occasion to the reproach of conservatism – particularly in education and philosophy of education where the rhetoric of change has always been fashionable. Philosophy is all caught up with how we think about ourselves; thinking and reflection belong to our life. Thus our life is at least partly correctly characterized as permeated by thinking and hence changed by thinking. How can coming to understand something not make a difference? According to The New Oxford Dictionary of English, as an adjective “conservative” means “averse to change or innovation and holding to traditional attitudes and values, typically in relation to politics or religion” and as a noun “a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics” (1998, p. 391). It is doubtful that in any of these senses Wittgenstein’s philosophical work is conservative. Such a justification could not be offered according to Wittgenstein’s own profoundly anti-foundational stance (see further). His remark is part of his more general hostility toward “the craving for generality.” This distaste for theories and explanation seems to put not only philosophy but also any social science under pressure (i.e., an eternal paralysis as far as action is concerned). So again one is pressed with the issue what Wittgenstein could have meant.

Taking # 124 out of context implies the impotence of philosophy; instead, let us consider that Wittgenstein’s point had to do with language alone. Wittgenstein does not say that everything in our understanding remains the same nor that everything in the world remains the same, only the language. The latter line of interpretation may find its analogy in “Physics leaves the world as it is.” The part of the Philosophical Investigations that deals with “philosophy” identifies the aim as “complete clarity” (PI, # 133). This result is to be reached by specific methods in specific cases. Wittgenstein states his antitheoretical position where he starts his discussion of “philosophy”:

And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.…These [philosophical problems] are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings; in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (PI, I, 109)

Elsewhere he writes, “The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose” (PI, I, 127). A number of questions can be asked: How are descriptions related to generality? And to theories? What is their particular contribution to understanding future cases? Is there a place for the general anywhere in Wittgenstein’s work and thought at all? If the quoted remarks were supposed to describe how philosophy is in fact done by professional philosophers, the remarks are obviously false. Explaining, deducing, drawing conclusions, advancing, and debating theories are what philosophers continually do. But it is important to get clear about what counts as “theory” here. Wittgenstein characterizes a theory as something hypothetical, that explains rather than merely describes, such as causally explanatory generalizations, which are testable by experiment or experience in general. Though something can be explanatory (such as a mathematical proof) without being hypothetical, it seems impossible to do philosophy without theorizing, if something is to count as theoretical when it involves deduction or drawing conclusions rather than just description. However, if we take it that Wittgenstein wants to reserve “theory” primarily for causal explanations that permit hypotheses and testing, his investigations are theoretical in a different sense, in a way he clearly does not want to object to. In what is called the Big Typescript, one can find some support for this interpretation: “As I have often said, philosophy does not lead me to any renunciation, since I do not abstain from saying something, but rather abandon a certain combination of words as senseless.…Philosophizing is: rejecting false arguments” (The Big Typescript, # 86 and 87; Klagge and Nordmann 1993, respectively, on pp. 161–165). Wittgenstein’s antitheoretical stance is therefore first and foremost an attack on the subsumption of philosophy under science. Philosophical problems cannot be decided by experience; they are conceptual and the result of lack of understanding of the way we talk. Therefore, it has to be demonstrated of philosophical positions (“theories”) that they are flawed in more fundamental ways (that they are meaningless, nonsensical, or incoherent). By pointing out that there is an incompatibility between the use a philosopher makes of a word and the account (the reason why) he provides for its use, a philosophical position can be criticized undogmatically – teaching you “…to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” (see PI, I, 464).

Wittgenstein’s intent was to show that the criteria of grammaticality are not the universal validity and necessity characteristic of the a priori. A philosophical method has to describe the language-game itself as the source of meaning of the terms used in it, without more ado. Therefore, the description that can establish the only possible order does not exist (PI, I, 132). It is only possible to reform language “for particular practical purposes” (PI, I, 132). For Wittgenstein, philosophy is not a set of doctrines, but an activity, and philosophical results are not found in “philosophical propositions,” but in making propositions clear. He insists always on asking whether a word is ever actually used in a particular way in the language-game that is its original home (PI, I, 116) and proclaims that what we are destroying in doing so is nothing but houses of cards, clearing up the ground of language on which they stand (PI, I, 118). Thus as critique of language, philosophy is not a reformative undertaking, but a descriptive one, which should show us, for instance, when language is merely idling. The solution of a philosophical problem is offered by reference to what lies open to view – once we are reminded of it (grammar). “Grammar” is lacking in perspicuity, and “perspicuity” basically means nothing other than an understanding consisting of seeing connections (PI, I, 122).

It is Wittgenstein’s hope that from reflection upon the very general facts of nature and the formation of different concepts, a change in attitude will emerge toward the concepts we in fact possess. This is a change of attitude in which we stop thinking of our concepts as being either “absolutely correct” or otherwise entirely arbitrary and instead light upon them as bound up with our life and so no less arbitrary or correct than it is. This is a kind of illumination that can be no less important (or urgent or necessary) than the kind that can be provided by empirical research. In philosophical inquiry what we are trying to do is not to discover something of which until now we have been ignorant, but to know better something that in one sense we knew already. Descriptions of the actual use of expressions (“grammar”) provide neither a foundation nor an (causal) explanation of linguistic behavior. What lies at the basis of the language-game, and therefore is presupposed to ground it, surely includes the regularity of custom; this represents a foundation only insofar as the network of convictions inside of which we carry on must rely upon it. And the fact that one takes over forms and concepts is not itself conditioned by forms and concepts, but by modes of acting. Again, by indicating that language-games are to be understood within a practice, this should not be understood as implying that they must be justified by something else. It is merely a different way of indicating how language-games cannot be spoken of other than with or within the context of a particular human practice. Therefore, philosophy does not put us in a position to justify or to criticize what we do by showing that it meets or fails to meet requirements we lay down in our philosophizing. In this sense, as Cora Diamond argues, philosophy leaves everything as it is (Diamond 1995, p. 69).

Wittgenstein provided a conception of human life in which the idea that man is a cultural being is taken seriously. Language is, on this way of looking at the matter, a constantly expanding and shifting set of cultural practices. They are ways of behavior that grow out of natural life through the creative efforts of human beings. “…[P]ractice has to speak for itself” (OC # 139). The concept of “practice,” as Kjell Johannessen argues, points not only to the ways in which the unity of our concepts is formed; it also comprises the skills involved in handling the conceptualized phenomena, our pre-reflective familiarity with them, expressed in the sureness in our behavior toward them and the judgmental power exercised in applying or withholding a given concept on a particular occasion (see Johannessen 1988). These factors are all relevant to the establishment of knowledge, but they cannot themselves be fully and straightforwardly articulated by verbal means. It should be noted not only that we have taken over certain ways of judging the empirical world from earlier generations but also that, in this context, judging is a way of acting. The child’s coming to act according to these beliefs cannot be learned by learning rules (see OC # 144). It has to be picked up by examples and by training, which are importantly different from conditioning in that the association is structured by a practice (which is for Wittgenstein rule governed, that is, normative: not the mere reinforced association of word and object). Training is successful if it results in the initiate learner becoming skilled and thereby an autonomous practitioner and thus hereafter performing within, and thus adding to, a practice – maybe even contributing to a partial change in it. A necessary support both logically and physically for the novice’s linguistic actions is the structuring provided by the community. It is logically necessary because it provides the system of background beliefs, actions, and competencies. This complex pattern is necessary for the token utterance to have significance and so to be an utterance. This is not to say that these practices are forever fixed: they are always open to new developments. These practices are not deliberately chosen conventions, but are constituted by the harmonious “blind” agreement in words and activities of a group of people over a period of time. It is “blind” only in the sense that it does not result from the self-conscious or explicit application of rules (PI, I, 219), though this does not mean that people are unconscious automata.

Only within a “language-game” will we be able to justify a certain inference and a certain behavior and can we speak of (lack of) justification, evidence and proof, mistakes, and good and bad reasoning. Investigations and criticisms of the reasons and justifications are brought to an end when we come upon something that we regard as a satisfactory reason and that we do so shows itself in our actions. We are initiated into “language-games” (reference is made to “normal cases”) and thus into judgment(s). He writes: “… always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word (“good,” for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? (PI, I, # thus: 77). Wittgenstein argues that dealing with meaning must always come down, at some point, to a recognition that people just do accept this or that and just do agree about what actions count or do not count as following a certain procedure. Yet at the same time the inherent nature of the language-game is such that meaning cannot be spelled out in terms of essence or in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. This “leap” however has nothing to do with deliberately looking for a different meaning (wanting to surpass or abandon a previous meaning), instead with not wanting to legislate future use.

Values, customs, and traditions cannot and should not be explained, as J.C. Nyíri argues (1992). Every “explanation” is, as it were, a judgment of reason – but reason itself, as Wittgenstein in his later philosophy sets out to prove, is in the last analysis, grounded in “our acting,” in “what we do,” which in some sense is what “tradition” amounts to. Therefore, if freedom is incompatible with being bound by real tradition, it is incompatible with “reason,” and not conforming must be seen as an anthropological folly – this, Nyíri argues, is Wittgenstein’s underlying thought. Certainly, in Wittgenstein’s work one finds a respect for what is there, what is historically given. This is present not only in the conception of the task of philosophy as description but also as the recurrent theme of the analyses: the acceptance of the authority of everyday language – here we reach bedrock or “the riverbed.” Moreover, Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” suggests that he came to think that ethics cannot be unitary. Taken out of context, this might appear blatantly conservative. His arguments, however, seldom address issues capable of being approached conservatively as opposed to, say, radically or liberally – it is not clear that the distinction applies, not that his work is not normative or that it is value-free. Wittgenstein is preoccupied by problems that are of a different, or more rudimentary, nature than those on which the conservative-radical distinction gains purchase. Furthermore, as Mark Cladis argues, his position endorses internal criticism. And though this may seem unduly limited, it is honest and, in contrast to supra-historical criticism, it is not illusory. Becoming aware of the historicity of society and all that this means can assist us in reforming society. This attitude has about it something of the humble wisdom of Socrates: the problems of life have more to do with learning from something than with solving a problem and then going on to the next one.

For Wittgenstein, “The child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief” (OC, § 160). The bedrock of our “language-games” is the “form of life.” These unjustified and unjustifiable patterns of human activities can be seen as the complicated network of rules which constitute language and social life. This “given” is a whole: it is the “language-and-the-world”; we cannot place ourselves outside of it. Our acting is embedded in a matrix of certainty that precedes our knowledge (the matrix of knowing-and-doubting and knowing-and-“making a mistake”). The ordinary certainties are the roads on which we walk without hesitation. They are not the only possible ones and not perhaps the correct ones (not even those which have worked in experience). Therefore, in general, “education” from a Wittgensteinian position can be conceived as a dynamic initiation into a “form of life”; parents are seen as the “first educators” and the responsibility of the State concerning schooling can be seen as an extension of this. Educators offer the child the truths by which they live: what moves them, what appeals to them, and what supports the idea of “human being” they offer to the child hoping that she or he will participate. Thus the child is immediately grasped in the human order, structured by certain relationships, and identified by language. If education ought to provoke new ideas, it nevertheless has to start from somewhere. Its aim is being a personal way of dealing with “what matters”: how people have struggled in the past with what troubled them most and how they dealt with it (a process in which one gets acquainted foremost with questions rather than with answers).

Does the practitioner need a philosophy or a theory of education? There is no reason to doubt what Wittgenstein’s answer to this question would have been. As with any practice, theoretical or philosophical insights are not needed for those involved in order to be able “to go on.” And it is not as if causal explanations would be of any help. But at the same time he would not deny that if one engages in reflection upon these practices, after being involved in particular activities, this might give us a better understanding about what one is doing. Freeing us from the idea that education must have a fixed and unified meaning will change what we want to do in education. This might generate, for example, a different perspective on research concerning day care for young children (now primarily focused on the “effects” this has on the very young) and highlight the way parents see themselves. And philosophy of education might address questions that have to do with means-end reasoning or cultural pluralism. One has to bear in mind however that according to Wittgenstein we do not encounter philosophical problems in practical life. We encounter them only when we are guided not by practical purpose in forming our sentences, but when certain analogies within our language lead us astray (The Big Typescript, # 91; Klagge and Nordmann 1993, p. 189). Careful reading in this way would not lead to the development of theoretical views, or any such thing, but it would change the researcher: the world would come to be looked at differently. And coming to see the world differently is changing oneself.


  1. Diamond, C. (1995). The realistic spirit: Wittgenstein, philosophy, and the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press. (originally 1991)Google Scholar
  2. Johannessen, K. (1988). The concept of practice in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Inquiry, 31, 357–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Nyíri, J. C. (1992). Tradition and individuality. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Wittgenstein, L. (1993). “The big typescript” incorporated. In J. C. Klagge & A. Nordmann (Eds.), Philosophical occasions. Indianapolis: Hacking.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ghent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  3. 3.Stellenbosch UniversityStellenboschSouth Africa