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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 5: Self-Examination

← 104 | 105 → CHAPTER 5


Wittgenstein devoted much of his life to the study of himself, not out of any narcissistic motive but rather as a means of keeping a check on how he was living, thinking and most importantly, attaining, in so far as this was possible, the high standards which he had set for himself.1 He was after all a keen observer who in later life described what this involved:

To observe is not the same as to look or view. One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe. (ROC, 61e, par. 326)

Observing himself and recording his findings in writing was important for Wittgenstein and was linked to his need for ‘confessional’ admissions about who and what he was. Some of the earliest records of this tendency is to be found in his letters to Paul Englemann with whom he began a correspondence during his time as a soldier in World War I. In one of his letters he describes himself as being ‘far too bad to be able to theorize about myself’2 and tells Englemann that one reason for writing to him was because ‘I have a lot of things inside me which I would like to write about ← 105 | 106 → but cannot.’3 Wittgenstein also revealed his post-war state of mental and emotional disarray:

We do not advance towards our goal by the direct road for this we (or at any rate I) have not got the...

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