Great Teachers Series: Ludwig Wittgenstein

I firmly believe that people can find great teachers in books. There have been certain authors, through the sheer force of their ideas and how they present them, who have made lasting changes to the way I see the world. This is the first post in a series that will examine my personal greatest teachers from beyond the grave. I will start with my top three favorite philosophers, dedicating a post to each from number three to number one. I will then do the same for other areas of interest, like economists, political leaders and literary writers. (I have not totally worked out how to arrange them). These posts will be sprinkled in between my usual diatribes against education reform and the general madness of the world around us.

It is important to note that I have no formal training in philosophy. I took one philosophy class as an undergrad in college. Otherwise, I started to get into philosophy in earnest in my early 20s. There are many thinkers with whom I am not familiar. Moreover, I understand that due to my lack of formal training, I might misunderstand the ideas of the philosophers I do write about. If you have further insights into the people I present in this series, including insights that contradict my own, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.  If you know of other ideas and thinkers that have contradicted or expanded upon the ones in this series, I also encourage you to share them. I have no problem with being taught or corrected.

This is a personal exercise for me. As with most of my other posts, I wish to share parts of myself with you.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Few philosophers have said less than Wittgenstein. This was by design. Wittgenstein was impatient with the unwieldy books and unintelligible ideas that define philosophy. This was because he believed most philosophers spoke nonsense. For millennia, philosophers were delving into the nuances of truth, love, God, freedom and ethics, only to keep covering the same ground and asking the same questions. As Wittgenstein derisively said, “the cure for philosophy is more philosophy.” By the time Wittgenstein arrived on the scene, the philosophical tradition was a babel of dualisms, monisms, imperatives and truths. Wittgenstein ascribed this to the practice of philosophers speaking out of context. It made no sense to Wittgenstein to ask “what is truth?” It is a question vacuum sealed from any actual context. “The truth of what?” would be how Wittgenstein would respond to such nonsense.

He wrote only one formal book of philosophy, the mercifully short Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was Wittgenstein’s attempt to beat philosophers at their own game. He wrote in the most general terms possible in order to build what he believed to be a complete picture of reality. This was during a stage of his life when he believed words painted a picture, so to speak, of the world. Using the most accurate words would create the most accurate picture of overall truth. After he was done with the Tractatus, he was confident he had solved all of the problems of philosophy. The only thing left for Wittgenstein was the nagging question of “now what?” Wittgenstein faced the nihilism of a goal that has been reached, a desire that has been abolished. This would be what would later be described as “Wittgenstein’s Ladder”. He put all of philosophy’s problems to rest, pulling up the ladder behind him so that future thinkers would not have anything with which to wrestle.

But the history of philosophy is full of these moments when something that seemed definitive at first turns out only to be a starting point. Wittgenstein’s mind was too restless to give itself over to smug self-satisfaction. He began writing privately, turning over the ideas of the Tractatus, rejecting some and refining others. Although he never published another book, his writings were collected posthumously and packaged as the Philosophical Investigations. The biggest difference between this book and the Tractatus was that he rejected the idea that words can paint a picture of the world. Instead, he believed language was used within what he called “language games”. One might call a language game a context, but it is something more as well. Take the word game. It is very difficult to define the word game by itself. Instead, the word only makes sense when associated with a type of game, whether a board game or a love game.

There are levels of language games. The words “green” or “red” may elude exact definition in a dictionary but, because of training, we all think the same thing when we hear them and can visualize the colors to which they refer. This is an example of what he called public language. Then there are those language games we use around our friends, family, coworkers and anyone else with whom there is a certain level of understanding. How many times have we been around a group of someone else’s friends, only to hear them engaged in a conversation we cannot understand? This is because they are using a bunch of words, gestures and abbreviations that they have built throughout several contexts. A language like this is not entirely public, nor is it strictly private. Private language refers to words that describe our inner life. When we tell someone we have a toothache, can that other person truly understand what we mean? They might have a sense of what a toothache is, but most likely cannot know the toothache we are feeling at that moment. The same goes for emotions like love, hate, fear and anything else that might be swirling around inside of us at the moment.

The concept of language games helps explain why Wittgenstein steered clear of topics like love, ethics and God that other philosophers usually contend with head-on. He felt that, no matter what words he might use to describe these things, they can never be fully articulated. Therefore, the deepest part of Wittgenstein’s thought will forever remain inaccessible to us. As Wittgenstein famously said, “Wherefore one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” The most important ideas would never be able to be spoken. More than any other thinker, Wittgenstein could be defined by what he did not say. He never spoke about ethics, leading one to conclude that he was a man of strong moral conviction. He never tackled religion, meaning he was probably very religious or, at the very least, mystical. We can start to draw our own conclusions about Wittgenstein’s feelings about these things, as well as all the other aspects of inner life on which he was conspicuously silent.

As a teacher, Wittgenstein made me more aware of the words I use with my students. I try to use words of the public language when starting all of my lessons. This forces me to reflect upon what could possibly be universal for a class of 30 kids from differing backgrounds and abilities. Sometimes I do not achieve the universality and simplicity for which I strive, but it remains an eternal goal nonetheless. Over the course of the semester, I try to build a language game that is shared within each class. We frequently draw upon the days, weeks and months of material we have learned previously. It has become particularly helpful in determining in what areas struggling students might need assistance. There are those moments when a student says or writes something completely off base. These instances give me a glimpse into what language game they could possibly be using. Many times, the clarification of a small idea from a previous lesson or a rephrasing of a question will help that student be part of the language game everyone else is using. From beginning to end, I try to avoid nonsense and encourage my students to do the same. This means using words with specific and definite meanings. Most importantly, this entails pinning down concepts in as few words as possible. Being efficient and specific when using language avoids confusion and makes students confident they can follow a train of thought from start to finish.

Wittgenstein has also helped me see the nonsense in many of the fads that pass themselves off as new pedagogical techniques. Teachers understand that there is an entire galaxy of writers, professors and reformers who want to foist their ideas for better teaching on our schools. Most of them are laden down with jargon, taking an entire textbook to say what could be said in a few words. Wittgenstein would wretch if he ever had to read half the garbage to which aspiring teachers are exposed. He would probably bang his head against a table if he ever had to sit through a professional development session conducted by so-called instructional experts. He probably would have very little patience for students as well, who naturally tend to be clumsy when expressing themselves, especially when trying to pull a fast one on their teachers. In short, Wittgenstein has strengthened my BS detectors. A teacher today cannot survive without them.

There is probably much more to be said about Wittgenstein, but I fear I might descend into nonsense myself if I try. Instead, here is a classy-looking dialogue featuring philosopher John Searle on Wittgenstein’s legacy. (Searle’s part starts around 3:36)

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3 responses to “Great Teachers Series: Ludwig Wittgenstein

  1. Thank you for sharing yourself in this way. I enjoy your posts.

  2. Pingback: Gratitude into Action « the magic of language blog: partnering with reality – by JR Fibonacci

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