Wittgenstein on Thinking, Learning and Teaching

by Patrick Quinn (Author)
©2015 Monographs XX, 141 Pages


Wittgenstein is not generally thought of as a philosopher of education, yet his views on how we think, learn and teach have the potential to contribute significantly to our contemporary understanding of pedagogy. Wittgenstein himself was a lifelong learner whose method consisted of thinking intensely about a wide range of topics, including not only the philosophy of language, logic and mathematics but also architecture, music, ethics, religion, culture and psychoanalysis. He then shared his observations and conclusions with his students as a way of teaching them how to think and learn for themselves, and his personification of the learner-teacher deeply impressed those who witnessed his pedagogical performances during his ‘lectures’. This study presents a detailed exploration of Wittgenstein’s legacy as an educationalist, now accessible to us through the extensive published collections of his thoughts on the subject.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction Uncertain Beginnings
  • Chapter 1: On Getting a Clear View
  • Chapter 2: The Role of the Language-Game in the Search for Clarity
  • Chapter 3: Belief and Proof
  • Chapter 4: The Role of Ethics in Learning and Teaching
  • Chapter 5: Self-Examination
  • Chapter 6: Concluding Remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← x | xi → Abbreviations


Culture and Value


The Foundations of Arithmetic


Notebooks 1914–16


On Certainty


Philosophical Investigations


Philosophical Occasions


Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics


Remarks on Colour


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii → Acknowledgements

I wish to first thank my wife, Marion, without whose patient support and unstinting encouragement I doubt whether I could have finished this book, such as it is. My thanks to Christabel Scaife from Peter Lang publishers, who commissioned the study and gave me considerable support throughout all stages of writing while being very patient when I went over time. My thanks to Jasmin Allousch, also from Peter Lang, for her kind assistance and to Peter Lang for publishing the book. Very special thanks to Professor Oliver Leaman (University of Lexington, Kentucky) and Professor William Desmond (Leuven) who were very encouraging about the project from the start and enthusiastic about its potential. I wish to thank the many students whom I have taught over the years including in the secondary schools where I taught who helped me develop an understanding of teaching and learning, which is always a work in progress. Thank you to those to whom I taught various courses at All Hallows College, Dublin, the many students who attended my Adult Education courses in philosophy and education over the years at University College Dublin and in particular those who attended my six-week course there from April to May in 2013 on Language, Education and Religion: Readings in the Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The adult students who continue to participate in the Adult Education philosophy courses that I teach have taught me that philosophy is best understood by those with life long experience and through a dialogical approach. They have contributed immensely to my own development as a teacher by helping me to tutor my classes. More recently I have taught the philosophy of education at the National College of Ireland and once again my thanks to the postgraduate students there for their interest and enthusiasm.

I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity during 2012 and 2013 to give papers on various aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought at a number of venues at home and abroad and I wish to record my thanks to those ← xiii | xiv → who invited me to speak at the relevant philosophy conferences which I attended: in 2012 at the University of Southern Denmark (8–9 June), Liverpool Hope University, England (15 June), National University College of Ireland, Maynooth (22–24 June), the University of Iceland (14–16 September) and in 1913, at St Patrick’s College, Thurles to which I was invited to speak at a conference organised by Dr Mary Shanahan (15 March) and to Dr Stephen J. Costello and Dr Angelo Bottone for inviting me to give a paper on Wittgenstein at the United Arts Club, Dublin (2 May). My special thanks to Mary Shanahan for inviting me to write a chapter on Wittgenstein’s ethics for the book that she edited, An Ethics of/for the Future published in 2014. Thank you to those who have attended my courses on various aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought at All Hallows BA undergraduate courses in philosophy and on his ethical views in the Adult Learning BA programmes (ALBA) at All Hallows over the past number of years. All this has contributed to my understanding of Wittgenstein’s views and his contributions to education and learning, which in turn has led to my writing this book. I want to thank my son Stephen for arranging at very short notice the formatting of the manuscript of this book and thanks also to my daughter Barbara and husband Tom for the technical advice given. My special thanks to Kieran Nolan (Oldtown Graphic Design, Dublin) for formatting the manuscript and to Michael Foley, old friend and superb photographer, for the beautiful cover photograph of the Botanic Gardens in Dublin where Wittgenstein spent so much time in the late 1940s.

Last but not least, I must acknowledge here the contribution of our grandchildren James and Sam to whom this book is dedicated. They taught me in their different ways how infants and small children acquire and use language, beginning with the ‘primitive language’ form described by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. Their efforts through sounds and gestures to communicate continue to be a valuable pedagogical experience. My thanks to them both for what they have taught me and for the pleasure they give Marion and myself. Go mbeadh saol fada agus iontach ag an mbeirt acu – a long and wonderful life to both of them.

← xiv | xv → Preface

Much has been written about Ludwig Wittgenstein over the years, particularly on his approach to philosophy and language. There have also been studies on his ideas about education and teaching. This book aims to show how certain significant aspects of his thought are crucial for understanding his views on thinking, learning and teaching and, in doing so, to allow a picture of the philosopher to emerge in his own words and through the views of some of his close friends. Wittgenstein’s efforts to probe the meaning of life and its problems shaped the direction of his thinking about learning from 1916 onwards beginning with his Notebooks 1914–16 and from his recorded conversations with friends and colleagues. We are fortunate to have such evidence from his writings and his friends about what he said and did.1 The initial focus of his attention was directed towards problem-solving which initially was channelled through his study of engineering that led to research in the field of aeronautics and mathematics. This, in turn, stimulated his interest in logic and the philosophy of logic and then in philosophy itself whose task he saw as clarifying language which would thereby clarify our thinking. He was interested in many subjects throughout his life, including religion and ethics, as well as music, architecture and design, culture, psychology and psychoanalysis. A persistent concern of his was how we think and learn and then teach what we know which forms the subject matter of this book. It will be argued here that Wittgenstein’s thoughts and observations about education provide a useful template for those of us who teach and learn whether formally or informally in the variety of situations that constitute a forum for our educational activities. It was St Thomas Aquinas the medieval philosopher-theologian who pointed ← xv | xvi → out that learning and teaching map human life and defines it as our form of life with others.2 Wittgenstein too was very conscious of the importance of education and pedagogy for human life and thought and he came to see that philosophy could be useful in contributing to learning by clarifying how we think and learn and trying to teach what we think we know.

Although his name may be largely unknown to many outside the field of philosophy and his experiences and reflections as a teacher even less well known, his observations on education and pedagogy can stimulate us to consider afresh our ways of thinking and learning. Since these constitute inescapable aspects of life for all of us, it is helpful to read the views of an exceptionally gifted thinker, a life-long learner and inspiring teacher though Wittgenstein would not have thought of himself as a ‘philosopher of education’. It will be for the reader to assess the relevance and value of Wittgenstein’s observations and if that judgement is positive, then many of his educational and pedagogical views may prove exceptionally insightful in revealing the dynamics involved in thinking, learning and teaching.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was certainly an intriguing person whose own personal form of life mirrored his intellectual, philosophical and personal development and much has been written about this.3 His wide range of interests and experiences also contributed to his intellectual and personal development which he frequently thought about and this formed a central part of life-long learning. When he began his philosophical studies at Trinity College Cambridge at the invitation and under the guidance of Bertrand Russell, his academic tutor and confidant, this set him on the intellectual path that directed his attention towards the relationship that exists between language and thinking which was to constitute the main focus of his enquiries for the rest of his life. This also placed the relationship between language and thinking as being central to education and ← xvi | xvii → pedagogy such that his life-long examination of this relationship became an extensive educational project in itself.


XX, 141
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Wittgenstein thinking lifelong learning philosophy of education
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XX, 141 pp.

Biographical notes

Patrick Quinn (Author)

Patrick Quinn is head of the Department of Philosophy at All Hallows College, Dublin; associate lecturer in the philosophy of education at the National College of Ireland, Dublin; philosophy tutor in the Adult Education Centre at University College Dublin; and a faculty member at the Centre for the Study of Platonism, Trinity College Dublin. He has published on philosophy and education and presented a series of programmes about these topics on Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) radio and television.


Title: Wittgenstein on Thinking, Learning and Teaching