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The self as pedagogical: On Wittgenstein and education

Published in Pedagogy & Curriculum, Theory by Seán Duffy on January 15, 2014

Ludwig Wittgenstein # 3 | Oil on canvas (c) Christiaan Tonnis ~

Ludwig Wittgenstein # 3 | Oil on canvas (c) Christiaan Tonnis ~

The study of education and consequently its application as a means for social change owes more than we might think to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His work makes no direct attributions to pedagogy yet traverses many of the same fundamental questions of language, philosophy, and behaviour. Wittgenstein’s philosophy seeks to elucidate the ways philosophers make discursive sense, and quite often their insistence on nonsense. The purpose of his work is to highlight the method by which we can make this understanding explicit through language, a method which is inherently dialogic and therefore educational.

The later work of Wittgenstein which he laid out in various notes and papers, eventually becoming The Philosophical Investigations (1953) is in many ways entirely opposed to that of his earlier magnum opus Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Such an about turn has left many admirers and scholars of Wittgenstein’s work either confused or patently tribal as to which constitutes his true thought process. Here I will seek to cover both in relation to any pedagogical lessons we can learn from his work.

Wittgenstein is a rationalist, albeit a rather difficult one to place. As a philosopher he sought to link the opposed fields of analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. He was specifically concerned with logical positivism in his early work the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, suggesting that the solution to philosophical problems lay in our ability to use precise statements for which there could be evidence, also referred to as synthetic propositions (1921). The only correct philosophical method to Wittgenstein at this time would be to say nothing except that which can be said with meaning. To communicate in a way devoid of meaning is not to communicate at all.

It was during this time that Wittgenstein proposed his concept of language games. This essentially expresses the idea that all meaning must be constructed on the basis of context. Words have meaning due to the fact they are used in a variety of ways, they have a multiplicity of meaning, and they do not require clear definition. These ideas owed a lot to Gottlob Frege’s work On Sense and Reference (1892) which questioned whether words can have any definite meaning outside of the context of a sentence. For Wittgenstein the self forms within these linguistic and cultural practices as a construction of discourse.

These observations provide a potential critique of the traditional view of liberal education, a view which is concerned with the development of the mind and the autonomous person (Peters & Marshall, 1999). Notions which place the self and the subject as the fundamental concerns of education become tenuous when we understand the self and discourse as non-separate entities. We should seek to correctly identify philosophical problems through our teaching, thereby transmitting good habits which prevent us from holding mistaken beliefs. In short the idea of the teacher and their teachings is a false distinction; there is only that which is said in that place at that time and the meaning we assign to it.

Conversely in The Philosophical Investigations towards the end of his life Wittgenstein espoused the idea that language acquires meaning from the way in which it is used. Language occurs as part of an activity or a ‘form of life’ (1953) not an objective point of reference. This stems from Wittgenstein’s later focus on language as a product of rule following and representation. This should not be mistaken as a focus on how we acquire those rules and representations however; see Chomsky (1957) and Fodor (1975) for a cognitive explanation of how this comes to pass. The way in which the individual establishes their relation to these rules and recognises how and why they should be put into practice is what is important for the educator, not as was suggested in his previous writings, the context within which the language seems to exist.

Here Wittgenstein is proposing that rather than seek truth (in life, in education, or even at all) we seek new ways of thinking; that we should think for ourselves. Classically a child is ‘trainable’ in a socially structured environment in which the ability or competence to be taught is already mastered by the teacher (Williams, 1994). The goal of teaching therefore is to enable learners to ‘see’ rather than interpret (Budd, 1987). Wittgenstein chooses to emphasise the postmodern respect for difference instead and therefore does not see the self as essentially dialogical as the likes of Habermas and Heidegger do, it is more representative to say that he sees the self as pedagogical. To presuppose that our language or objects have any essential order or shape is wrong to Wittgenstein, they only have use, and this is true of how we educate also.

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in regards to education can be read as this therefore: we do not share the otherness of those being taught, nor can we observe whether they understand our explanations (Maruyama, 2006). We assume, quite wrongly, that the dialogic form is controlled solely by the questioner in the classic Socratic sense. However, the rules by which language is employed may well coincide perfectly with how it is used, yet this does not mean to say they are descriptive of its actual use (Kuusela, 2008). As such we can never be certain of what is being understood and can only strive forward in a confused form of mutual edification.

Combining these divergent thought processes is difficult and perhaps impossible but that does not mean to say they are incomprehensible. Wittgenstein’s work is confusing and at times contradictory yet it remains unique in its breadth and precision in regards to how language can be used as a tool for philosophical excavation, and for that matter there remains a great deal of interest to the educator as well.


Budd, M. (1987) Wittgenstein on Seeing Aspects. Mind, 96 (381)

Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. Mouton de Gruyter, Boston.

Fodor, J.A. (1975) The Language of Thought. Thomas Cromwell, Boston.

Frege, G. (1892) On Sense and Reference. Accessed Online [20/12/2013] at‎

Kuusela, O. (2008) The Struggle Against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, London.

Maruyama, Y. (2006) The Teaching/Telling Distinction Revisited. In The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul 2003, pp.93-97, Philosophical Society of Turkey.

Peters, M. & Marshall, J. (1999) Wittgenstein: Philosophy, Postmodernism, Pedagogy. Bergin & Garvey, London.

Williams, M. (1994) The Significance of Learning in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 24 (2), pp.173-204

Wittgenstein, L. (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, London.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

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About the author /


Seán Duffy is a first year PhD student within the University of Glasgow’s School of Education. His research focuses on precarious transitions between education and work for young working class individuals in Scotland and more widely the future of work and education within the context of austerity from a sociological perspective.


  1. Avatar

    Really liked this post Seán.
    Loads to think here. I especially like the idea of the self as pedagogical and I truly hope you expand on this in future posts 😉

    I also see learning as contextual (Dias Figueiredo) and situated (Lave); a process through which personal(ised) meaning is constructed… With teachers facilitating that activity, rather than dictating it. But how can this be achieved if not through dialog/ socialisation with the context and its actors? can’t the self then be both dialogic and pedagogical?

    Philosophy is not one of my strengths but I do enjoy the exchange of ideas… As a form of personal learning 🙂

  2. Avatar

    Thank you Cristina,

    I am fond of the idea myself but it is perhaps too nebulous in Wittgenstein’s own writing. I would recommend the Peters & Marshall book that I have cited in the reference list as a very intriguing text on this issue and others that I didn’t have the time to touch on in this post.

    I think Lave’s idea of situated learning is certainly pertinent to this debate and naturally expands into the cognition aspects that I alluded to with Fodor and Chomsky. I think that debate also shares ground with Wittgenstein’s idea of private languages, which he believes are impossible (leading to his famous line ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’). The reason we can understand what we learn collectively is because it corresponds with factors outside of ourselves (observations, shared ideas). The logic being, that which is created entirely within ourselves necessarily must have meaning outside of ourselves for us to understand it, and this is not the case, therefore it is not possible. I suppose you could read Lave’s work in such a way that those who initially don’t understand fail to do so because the context within which they are asked or in which they exist creates no meaning for those propositions, I think she used Nuns? I don’t remember it well. This is why we don’t say to children ‘What is 2+2’ straight off the bat, despite the fact they innately understand all of those concepts. We show them objects, enumerate those objects, and then give them examples in which 2 of those objects would be added to 2 others and they naturally get to the conclusion 4. Maths is an example of a completely non-private language (it’s universal regardless of native tongue) and that is why it works so well in showing how cognition works, and therefore learning. Though I can sense my college philosophy teacher slamming his head against the desk now saying I still don’t understand the private language argument!

    Often Wittgenstein’s style of argument and therefore teaching is described as aporetic i.e. arguing from a position of confusion or perplexity, especially with oneself. This is in many ways a dialogical form of reasoning except with a twist. It is similar to the Socratic mode of teaching except you don’t have an interlocutor and then point out how much of a fool they are at the end. Added to this the fact Wittgenstein is concerned with changing our way of thinking and his own, then I think it is correct what you say that it can be both dialogical and pedagogical. I am reading some of Lyotard’s work in this area which seems to make clear some of these confusions but I haven’t finished it yet so can’t make any firm observations yet.

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