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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



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 teaching 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 | 2 → did not make sense to Hermine (nor presumably to his other siblings), given her brother’s high level of intelligence and distinguished research record first at the University of Manchester and then at Trinity College Cambridge prior to 1914. However, when he told her that teaching provided him with respite from his own inner turbulence since, as he put it, he was like someone just about managing to stay on his feet during a violent storm, she accepted his decision and later came to regard him as a wonderful teacher, which indeed he turned out to be.3 In fact, Wittgenstein’s state of psychological turbulence, of which Bertrand Russell was well aware due to their conversations in Cambridge (Wittgenstein arrived there in 1911), was evident before World War I and is documented in 1913 (possibly around Christmas of that year, according to Brian McGuinness)4 by Wittgenstein himself in a letter to...

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