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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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Chapter 1: On Getting a Clear View

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Getting a clear view was what shaped Wittgenstein’s philosophical approach and his observations on thinking, learning and teaching. This should come as no surprise since both mathematics and logic were valued by Wittgenstein as disciplines which by their very nature brought about clarity of thought. His interest in logic and his understanding of it was to develop considerably after his meetings with the famous German logician-philosopher and mathematician, Gottlob Frege, whose influence is evident in Wittgenstein’s writings, especially on his thoughts about clarity and logical objectivity.

Wittgenstein may have met Frege before he met Russell, according to Brian McGuinness,2 and he had certainly read Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic3 whose Introduction sets out some of the principles presupposed by Frege when writing his book. These principles are important not just in logic and mathematics, but also in ethics and in general thinking. One of them goes as follows:

Never let us take a description of the origin of an idea for a definition of it, or an account of the mental and physical conditions on which we become conscious of a proposition for a proof of it. A proposition may be thought, and again it may be ← 11 | 12 → true; let us never confuse the two things. We must remind ourselves it seems that a proposition no more ceases to be true when I cease to think of it than the sun ceases to exist when I shut my eyes. (The Foundations of Arithmetic, vi)

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