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Wittgenstein on Thinking, Learning and Teaching

Patrick Quinn

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.


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Introduction: Uncertain Beginnings


Introduction Uncertain Beginnings Wittgenstein’s decision to become a teacher shocked many of those who knew him, including his family. His sister Hermine found it very difficult to accept initially until her brother told her in oblique language that teach- ing would help him to cope with the inner turbulence which he was then experiencing.1 He had changed a great deal since the beginning of the war (World War I), she wrote in her memoir, and wanted to give away all the wealth which he had inherited on his father’s death.2 Wittgenstein’s choice of such a ‘completely ordinary occupation’ as elementary school teaching 1 In her memoir ‘My Brother Ludwig’, published in Rush Rhees’s Recollections of Wittgenstein (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), Hermine states that her brother had profoundly changed in a religious direction and wanted to give away his considerable wealth (which he had inherited like his siblings after his father’s death) and had taken to reading Tolstoy’s version of the Gospels. She adds that when her brother chose ‘a completely ordinary occupation’ by becoming ‘an elementary schoolteacher out in the country’, she found this decision extremely difficult to understand (ibid., 3–4). Wittgenstein also wrote to Engelmann between 1918 and 1925 describing his personal difficulties, his thoughts about suicide and his problems with other people. See Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein with a Memoir, Brian McGuinness, ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967). 2 He was influenced in this by his reading of Tolstoy’s book, The Gospel in...

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