Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Wittgenstein as Educator

  • Jeff Stickney
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_409



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

When Wittgenstein moved to rural Austria to teach elementary school (1920–26), his sister Margarete protested that this “was like using a precision instrument to open crates,” to which he replied that it was a better alternative to suicide – the unfortunate demise of two of his older brothers (Bartley 1985, p. 37). Perhaps taken on as an escape from the world, like his subsequent gardening work in a monastery, he nevertheless embraced the challenge to become an educator and even wrote with enthusiasm to Russell about being “happy in my work at school” (Monk 1990, p. 193). The difficult task often proved to be frustrating, however, partly because the cultivated aristocrat was out of place among rural, poor folk who found him “strange” (Monk 1990, pp. 194, 197). His teaching career ended after 6 years with an inquest into his well-documented use of corporal punishment (see Monk 1990, pp. 194–195, e.g., accounts of pulling girls’ hair and cuffing boys’ ears). Wittgenstein’s rather Nietzschean views of education appear untimely now.

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).

That early teaching experience influenced later thinking at Cambridge is apparent from Wittgenstein’s use of orthography as a paradigmatic case.

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)

Remarks on orthography adduce Wittgenstein’s general attitude toward foundations and our later flexibility within rules and practices – some of which may be arbitrary and open to revision.

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)

Appealing to his superintendent’s attention, Wittgenstein says his Dictionary for Elementary Schools (1993) has the goal “to fill an urgent need with respect to the present teaching of orthography” (PO, p. 15). Prefacing the dictionary “to make intelligible his general plan,” he justifies violating standard rules of alphabetical order, recognized for efficiency and logic. As though making a philosophical refutation, he argues it reduces slippage in learning:

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)

Acknowledging age-appropriate ranges for demanding, abstract concepts, Wittgenstein’s pedagogy sought to reduce what we may see through On Certainty as failure to concretize or erosion of bedrock (OC §94–98). Breaking convention, simplifying better secures learning, showing that teaching technique is not arbitrary. From what he refers to as his “subjective view” it was pedagogically better to group families of words sharing etymological roots, even if this method “clashes with the generally held principle of alphabetic order” (PO, p. 21). Under alphabetic order the words alt and Alter are broken up by a heterogeneous word, Altar:

alt, das Alter

old, old age

der Altar


D[d]as Alterum, altermümlich

Antiquity, antique

Pondering students’ learning slippage, he later remarked (1940):

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

Wittgenstein later (c.1950) reflected on his certainty when professing the validity of his pedagogic techniques.

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)

Weighing grammatical suitability in applying the concept “believing” versus “knowing” when no doubt occurs in the flow of teaching, Wittgenstein distinguishes his philosophical from pedagogical remarks. Repeatedly, Wittgenstein notes that reflections on students “taking things together” in arithmetic or learning the multiplication table are observations or “remarks about concepts, not about teaching methods” (PI, pp. 208, 227).

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)

Philosophically, he was concerned at Cambridge with ontological problems of meaning instead of earlier training in pedagogy. It is highly unlikely that Wittgenstein saw teaching as a legitimate “science” (Standish 1995); his philosophical methods aver scientific approach, employing instead ethnography and attending to enculturation (Smeyers 1995, 2008).

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)

Adumbrated here, (empirical) science and (grammatical) philosophy are like passing trains:

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)

Answering his interlocutor’s accusation that emphasis on training amounts to operant conditioning Wittgenstein again shifts attention from science to grammar.

“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)

Not throwing out empirical studies on the basis of this distinction, Wittgenstein advises not waiting for a future science of “mental states” to answer our questions about what makes sense philosophically or pedagogically:

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)

Deflating expectations, waiting for educational psychology to solve our problem of what constitutes “sound” teaching is like anticipating “science” to explain what is beautiful or tasteful.

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)

Equally, however, Wittgenstein is not anti-etiological; recall that he came to Manchester to study aeronautical engineering (see Monk 1990). Demonstrating that interpretations of rules seem to “hang in the air,” unable to support or determine meaning, Wittgenstein draws an illustrative connection.

“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)

His distinction shifts emphasis from etiological inquiries into learning to inspection of training into culturally sanctioned practices and customs.

“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)

Pragmatic learning theory as inquiry into causal processes (e.g., “teaching by means of indirection”) attends, fallibly but instrumentally, to causal learning conditions. Contrast Dewey’s interest with Wittgenstein’s:

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).

Medina (2002, p. 158) notes this separation from causes was made too insistently in the early 1930s, softening in Wittgenstein’s thinking after 1938. Contrast his 1930s Cambridge lectures with 1940s emphasis (RFM and PI) on training securing rules.

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.

Medina (2002, p. 159) concurs, noting that in Wittgenstein’s later reflections on learning, “He emphasizes that, through training processes, our behaviour becomes, not causally determined, but normatively structured; that is, we acquire the ability to engage in self-regulating behaviour”.

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)

Addressing this normative aspect of training, Medina recalls Wittgenstein’s descriptions of cajoling students during training: “The words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are used when giving instruction in proceeding according to a rule. The word ‘right’ makes the pupil go on, the word ‘wrong’ holds him back” (RFM, VI.39;cf. Medina, pp. 164–165). Through drilling and instilling students acquire, blindly, the normative attitude of their mentors.

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).

Musing on how “one belief hangs together with all the rest” and how it either accords or breaks with “our whole system of verification,” he remarks:

This system is something a human being acquires by means of observation and instruction. I intentionally do not say “learns”. (OC §279)

Similarly, we pick up background context needed to interpret facial expressions and pain behavior, but we do not explicitly learn this through formal instruction nor can we easily impart expert judgment to others (PI, pp. 227–228). Needed background for making inferences and judgments comes through tacitly in the process of instruction, rather like learning the significance of “making a mistake” in the course/flow of normative training in mathematics (RFM VII.6). In this post-foundational epistemology, the rational, autonomous subject of enlightenment and analytic philosophy is reimmersed in the flow of life, where background and training set the stage for meaning.

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)

Sharing a form of life means being socialized into accepting certain customs or commands (PI §206;PI, p. 226), giving us also shared “agreement in judgments” (PI §§241-2) upon which we can also challenge and advance claims, including the suitability of explanations delivered in the course of teaching.

“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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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada