Wittgenstein as Educator
Sage advice is not to look for educational theory in Wittgenstein’s writing but to see his later philosophy as pedagogical (Peters 1995; Peters and Marshall 1999; Peters et al. 2008) or as therapeutic (Smeyers et al. 2006). Accepting established boundaries, here I set Wittgenstein’s later remarks on training against the background of his own elementary-school teaching in rural Austria (1920–26), sorting empirical matters related to education from his philosophical concern with the acquisition and judgment of meaning. Interested in securing learning in his elementary classroom, he later came to distinguish such causal inquiries from philosophical inspection of grammatical problems (PI §122). In this move, training is the avenue leading us into felicitous performance of language games (including math and music notation), but meaning (an ontological concern with significance) is socially governed in terms of our usage and judgment and is neither reducible to its prerequisite nor closed from change.
As Glock (1996, pp. 111–112) explains, in his later philosophy Wittgenstein attends to how words are taught not to “engage in armchair learning theory” or to offer any “empirical genetic theory” but to show conceptually that teaching by explanation presupposes basic linguistic skills we are not born with, but acquire by means of training. Early training provides a (nonrationalist) foundation for explanations as well as our basis for judging whether explanations are clear or not. Hunter (1985) illustrates this beautifully through the case of a frustrated mathematics teacher struggling with the problem of “retelling” (not merely repeating) instructions in such a way as to clarify intended rules for the perplexed student. How does the teacher know when the pupil “gets it”? Adeptly employing words or rules within their appropriate connotative, axiomatic, and grammatical ranges of usage, the pupil demonstrates learning achievement as a criterion for successful initiation into conventional practice or mastery of techniques (PI §199). Attention to training as the basis for judgment (PI, p. 227) sidesteps the vicious circularity, leaving shared practice as our “ground” in an otherwise post-foundational epistemology.
Elementary School Teaching
I think the way people are educated nowadays tends to diminish their capacity for suffering. At present a school is reckoned good ‘if the children have a good time’. And that used not to be the criterion. Parents moreover want their children to grow up like themselves (only more so), but nevertheless subject them to an education quite different from their own. – Endurance of suffering isn’t rated highly because there is supposed not to be any suffering – really it’s out of date. (CV, p. 71e)
Despite strict discipline, students later described Wittgenstein as a highly devoted, if demanding, teacher (see Bartley 1985; Monk 1990). In his elementary classroom, Wittgenstein assiduously compiled words students used, forming a reference dictionary. Edmonds and Eidnow (2001, p. 61) note that “his dictionary was in keeping with the [reform] movement and the position in the Investigations that rural dialects could be in perfect order as they are.” Phillips (1977, p. 8, citing Bartley 1985, p. 117) claims that by keeping their own dictionary Wittgenstein’s students gained an appreciation of “the ambiguity of their own usage of the language.” In this sense, Wittgenstein was conservator of the child’s quotidian language: pedagogy congruent with his later philosophy – meaning-as-use (OC §61).
Wittgenstein’s practical approach to teaching was somewhat in keeping with child-centered movements in Austria, in vogue while attending Vienna’s teacher training college (1919–20; Philips 1977, pp. 7–10; cf. Savickey 1999). Bartley, however, recalls Wittgenstein joking about these reforms: perhaps embracing the anti-scholastic spirit and practices but amused by campaign rhetoric. Edmonds and Eidnow (2001, p. 61) also recall that “Wittgenstein poked fun at the programme’s ‘more vulgar slogans and projects’.” Wittgenstein was cautious about “language gone on holiday” (PI §38): “…Don’t let yourself be seduced by the terminology in common currency” (CV, p. 74e).
One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word “philosophy” there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so; it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word “orthography” among others without being second-order. (PI §121)
Just as in writing we learn a particular basic form of letters and then vary it later, so we learn first the stability of things as the norm, which is then subject to alteration. (OC §473)
But if the purely alphabetic order inserts a heterogeneous word between two closely related ones, then in my opinion the alphabetic order demands too much from a child’s power of abstraction. Thus, because of the comprehension of words and the highly important saving of space, the purely alphabetic order often cannot be recommended. Equally, each instance of clinging to a dogmatic principle leads to an arrangement that does not suit our purpose and has to be abandoned – even if this would make the author’s work much easier. Rather, it is necessary to compromise again and again. (PO, p. 23)
alt, das Alter
old, old age
D[d]as Alterum, altermümlich
A teacher may get good, even astounding, results from his pupils while he is teaching them and yet not be a good teacher; because it may be that, while his pupils are directly under his influence, he raises them to a height which is not natural to them, without fostering their own capacities for work at this level, so that they immediately decline again as soon as the teacher leaves the classroom. Perhaps this is how it is with me; I have sometimes thought so. (CV, p. 38e)
Philosophically Questioning Certainty
I myself wrote in my book that children learn to understand a word in such and such a way. Do I know that, or do I believe it? Why in such a case do I write not “I believe etc.” but simply the indicative sentence? (OC §290)
How does one teach a child (say in arithmetic) “Now take these things together!” or “Now these go together”? Clearly “taking together” and “going together” must originally have had another meaning for him than that of seeing in this way or that. – And this is a remark about concepts, not about teaching methods. (PI, p. 208)
“We all learn the same multiplication table.” This might, no doubt, be a remark about the teaching of arithmetic in our schools, – but also an observation about the concept of the multiplication table. (PI, p. 227)
Am I doing child psychology? I am making a connexion between the concept of teaching and the concept of meaning. (Z §412)
When I write down a bit of a series, that you then see this regularity in it may be called an empirical fact, a psychological fact. But, if you have seen this law in it, that you then continue the series in this way – that is no longer an empirical fact. (RFM VI.26; cf. PI §109)
The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by. (PI, xiv, p. 232)
“Are you not really a behaviourist in disguise? Aren’t you at bottom really saying that everything except human behaviour is a fiction?” – If I do speak of fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction. (PI §307)
Sometime perhaps we shall know more about them – we think. But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter. For we have a definite concept of what it means to learn to know a process better. (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.) (PI §308)
You might think Aesthetics is a science telling us what’s beautiful – almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose it ought to include also what sort of coffee tastes well. (CV, §2, p. 11)
“Then can whatever I do be brought into accord with the rule?” – Let me ask this: what has the expression of a rule – say a sign-post – got to do with my actions? What sort of connexion is there here? – Well, perhaps this one: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it.
But that is only to give a causal connexion; to tell how it has come about that we now go by the sign-post; not what this going-by-the-sign really consists in. On the contrary; I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign posts, a custom. (PI §198)
“How am I able to obey a rule?” – If this is not a question about causes, then it is about justification for my following the rule in the way I do. (PI §217)
Here we are not asking ourselves what are the causes and what produces this impression in a particular case. (PI, p. 201, on seeing something as, say, a triangle)
Growth in judgment and understanding is essentially growth in ability to form purposes and to select and arrange means for their realization. The most elementary experiences of the young are filled with cases of the means-consequences relationship. …The trouble with education is not the absence of situations in which the causal relation is exemplified in the relation of means and consequences. Failure to utilize the situations so as to lead the learner on to grasp the relation in given cases of experience is, however, only too common. (Dewey 1938, pp. 104–105)
Although Wittgenstein too appears to have been rearranging conditions to effect learning in his elementary classroom and dictionary, his later philosophical pursuit concerns how – once meaning is secured through training – it ranges “sensibly” within our grammar. For Wittgenstein, causal relationships securing learning – an educational psychology topic of possible importance in teaching – is not a philosophical (ontological) issue, whereas degrees of arbitrariness and grammatical entanglement in educational language is ostensibly “philosophical” (PI §§124–126).
The process of learning does not matter; it is history and history does not matter here. …This laying down of a rule is exactly analogous to learning language. The laying down of the rule is not contained in following the rule; the laying down is history. (CL,#2, p. 55)
When we learn the meaning of a symbol the way in which we learn it is irrelevant to our future use and understanding of it. The way in which I learned my A B C and learned to read is irrelevant to my future understanding of written symbols — it is a matter of purely historical interest. But something does as it were adhere to the symbol in the process of my learning its meaning, and this becomes part of the symbol. (CL #3, p. 117)
Meredith Williams (1999, p. 216) explains that “The normativity of our practices involves non-causal necessity, that is, logical or grammatical necessity.” By this curious phrase she means to say that learning to follow directions (ostension or rule following) presupposes a common background of what is “obviously the same” for all participants in the learning. This common background for judgment is acquired in the process of training, or in mastering techniques, making the process of learning techniques constitutive of what is learned and enabling learners to recognize sameness and carry on in the same way as others do.
So, for Wittgenstein, our training into techniques is more than an inductive process or a process of conditioning: it is a process of structuring behaviour until it becomes self-regulated. Learning processes of this kind endow us with more than behavioral dispositions or empirical certainties. These processes lead to the adoption of normative standards…. (Medina, p. 159)
When I obey a rule, I do not choose. I obey the rule blindly. (PI §219)
Our children are not only given practice in calculation but are also trained to adopt a particular attitude towards a mistake in calculating.
What I am saying is that mathematics is normative. But “norm”: does not mean the same thing as “ideal.” (RFM, VII.61)
Medina (p. 164) notes that for Wittgenstein, the teacher must treat the child with “courtesy,” as though he/she is capable of making correct usage of the rules. “The teacher treats the pupil’s correct responses as indicative of an incipient competence and her incorrect responses as ‘mistakes’” (cf.RFM, VII.61). But the learner’s reactions to the training are invested with normative significance only when viewed against the background of the whole rule-governed practice (cf.RFM, VII.47). The teacher checks and corrects the students responses until self-correction takes over, thus normatively structuring the pupil’s behaviour. But this inculcation into norms is not simply what liberal-analytic philosophers have eloquently opposed as the ‘suppression of reason.’ Medina offers important qualification: that the higher goal of initiate-training is to open possibilities rather than merely fix them. Training students into normative attitudes, teachers create regularities, a “consensus of action” leading toward mastery of techniques (PI §199); adept pupils, however, show more autonomous, self-corrective behavior within the rules.
Gradually through normative training we respond “naturally” as most others do (PI §185). Specific techniques of training in different language games lend nuance and relative “degrees of certainty” (PI, p. 224) to words like “prediction”: for example, anticipating moves in gymnastics routines versus chemical reactions (PI §630). Wittgenstein reminds educators that we know a pupil has mastered the technique for using the word “red” when he/she responds “spontaneously” after seeing something we agree is red. Customarily, showing something red affirms its meaning, though calling anything “red” doesn’t make it so (OC §429). Rather silly, Wittgenstein thinks, to begin the teaching process this way with school-age children: pointing to things and saying “That looks red” (Z §418). Infants absorb concepts from their surroundings, regularly coming to see spoons as “cutlery” (PI, p. 195). Pupils indicate uptake of such immersive training by reacting appropriately and fluently, but “this reaction, which is our guarantee of understanding, presupposes as a surrounding particular circumstances, particular forms of life and speech” (RFM, VII.47).
This system is something a human being acquires by means of observation and instruction. I intentionally do not say “learns”. (OC §279)
What determines our judgment, our concepts and reactions, is not what one man is doing now, an individual action, but the whole hurly-burly of human actions, the background against which we see any action. (Z §567-69)
“We are sure of it” does not just mean that every single person is certain of it, but that we belong to a community which is bound together by science and education. (OC §298)
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