Dedicated to all things literacy related.

"Language [after all] is an instrument. Its concepts are instruments." (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations #569)

Wittgenstein On Literacy provides a Wittgensteinian view of language, literacy, thinking, educational practice & more. It goes without saying that the site is inspired by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951), who is considered by many to be one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century [1] [2] [3], and is known for his contributions to the philosophies of logic, language, mathematics, culture & the mind. This website is not a summary or an evaluation of his philosophy, though. Instead, it takes the philosophy as a launchpad to reflect upon contemporary aspects of education, whether it is about language & literacy acquisition or equity & culture or knowledge & doubt. 

So ... why did I create a website about Wittgenstein, language, literacy and learning? Wouldn't it have been smarter to create a direct site about language, literacy and learning that referred directly to curriculum outcomes rather than using a philosopher's axioms as the starting point?  I must admit that Wittgenstein's philosophy can appear obscure at the best of times. Clearly, a more general site would allow for more flexibility. That said, I feel I can make a compelling case, and I will do so in reference to three of the major texts: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty.

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I find that Wittgenstein's work provides us with reminders - so to speak - in a few areas: about perception (and seeing aspects), about language (its structure and use), about our words (and our concepts), about learning (the novice and the master), about knowledge (the critical and imaginative practice that it is), about doubt (and certainty) and about culture (and the learning that is embedded within it). 

Before I continue with this introduction, I should allude to the many sections on this site. I encourage visitors to visit the blog (or journal), the key notes/quote, probing essays, teaching themes, recommended readings and helpful glossaries

However, without further ado, let's begin with the ...

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (published in 1921)

Wittgenstein's early work in the Tractatus exhibited a particular fascination with the way in which language (our sentences) represented the world, or aspects of the world. That is, Wittgenstein sought to reinforce how our sentences can capture pictures of facts that can be extracted by a listener or a reader who can proceed to experience facts or events imaginatively without the need for direct experience. Similarly, the writer (or speaker) can likewise use language to construct, assess, re-construct and revise pictures of events, which also presents language as a tool that we use to render our experiences. This simplified concept of language seeks to justify why we speak (and write and read) at all; that is, we convey pictures to one another and ourselves that can - upon decoding - influence our knowledge and our ways of seeing. 

"In a proposition a situation is, as it were, constructed by way of experiment. Instead of, ‘This proposition has such and such a sense’, we can simply say, ‘This proposition represents such and such a situation.’" (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #4.031)

"At first sight a proposition - one set out on the printed page, for example - does not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is concerned." (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #4.011)

Therefore, Wittgenstein states that our propositions (or sentences) are able to conjure possible states of affairs which are then open to extra scrutinity to determine their truthfulness. In such case, we can picture the individual working steadily to model out possible states of affairs, thereby exercising the imagination to consider, "what truly is the case?" This observation opens up the speculative dimension of language and literacy and of critical consciousness. We do not only explore what is the case; we also explore what could be the case. We - so to speak - try things on for size, which is a further mental (and imaginative) activity that can be fostered through literacy. 

Wittgenstein takes the time in mid-argument to stop and state that pictures can only be derived if one happens to have been brought into the language in which messages are spoken and written. If one cannot decode the language, then one is excluded from particular messages that lie encoded in the sentences. Even if one has the biologic capacity for language, this does not equate to an ability to engage in particular languages. This digression in his argument recognises that languages and literacies are learnt. Furthermore, he emphasises that our sentences are in need of processing (in need of a thinker), since a proposition includes all that is required to project a picture, but the thinker must still extract the picture or meaning from the sentences.

"A proposition includes all that the projection includes, but not what is projected. Therefore, though what is projected is not itself included, its possibility is. A proposition, therefore, does not actually contain its sense, but does contain the possibility of expressing it." (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #3.13)

"Man possesses the ability to construct languages capable of expressing every sense, without having any idea how each word has meaning or what its meaning is--just as people speak without knowing how the individual sounds are produced. Everyday language is a part of the human organism and is no less complicated than it." (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus #4.002) 

The rules presented in the Tractatus make sense for descriptive, factual language, and the Tractatus presents an argument so its readers can distinguish between that which is true and sensical and that which is untrue, speculative or conceptual and in need of further interpretation or validation. The terse, methodical style of the book exhibits a logical care that epitomises an exacting analytical approach to logical argument that serves as a model for integrity and poeticism in thought. In fact, the opening of the Tractatus and its seven main numbered remarks exude a demand for a careful exactness in thought:

  1. The world is all that is the case.
  2. What is the case - a fact - is the existence of states of affairs.
  3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.
  4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.
  5. A proposition is a truth function of elementary propositions.
  6. The general form of a truth function is [p, E, N(E)]. This is the general form of a proposition.
  7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Wittgenstein chooses to remain silent on conceptual and intentional language in the Tractatus, which serves to exclude religious, ethical, aesthetic, technical and other disciplinary languages (or discourses). Statements such as "God is good", "It is against the law to murder" or "Great art is meant to provoke the examination of the human condition" are not assessed by rules of truth or verification. Specialised or disciplinary languages derive their sense and meaning within the practice in which the language is used (e.g. in religious practice, or scientific practice, or artistic practice, etc). In Witgensteinian terms, their meanings must be shown and become manifest in the experiences of the language speakers (or community of practitioners), which is a topic that Wittgenstein would reserve for investigation later in his career. 

If we are to base a language, literacy and numeracy pedagogy on the Tractatus, we would find that there would be an

  • emphasis on decoding;
  • emphasis on concrete nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositional phrases, etc
  • emphasis on sentence construction and literal comprehension;
  • emphasis on descriptive writing, narratives and information reports ("what is the case?");
  • allusion to the drawing of interpretations and inferences from language;
  • exploration of the difference between fact and speculation; of description and judgement; and of sensical and conceptual discourse; and
  • deriving concrete examples (or elementary proposition) from conceptual statements (or complex propositions).

Most importantly, students are asked to challenge themselves to represent experience and/or states of affairs in words and numbers as well as assess experiences that are conveyed in propositions.

“Every child, scrawling his first letters on his slate and attempting to read for the first time, in so doing, enters an artificial and most complicated world.”  (Hermann Hesse, Quoted by Wolf, 2008, p 79)


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Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953)

By the time we find our way to the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein has turned his attention squarely on the very thing he remained silent on in the first place; that is, how language gains its meaning from its use in context.  He turns his back on the crystalline yet slippery surface of logical forms and walks directly toward the rough ground of investigating the ways in which we use language in practice. We tell stories. We write reports. We perform plays. We present debates. We tell rude jokes. We pray. We tease. We recite grand epics. We develop critical forms of argumentation. We deliver liturgies. At the same time, we come to interpret stories, reports, debates, jokes, prayers, metaphors, parables, insults, epics, arguments, etc. Well ... in fact, each person doesn't become adept at all of these things. Which language-games we participate in is a matter of our background, our community, our upbringing, our education and our choices

"Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a life-form." (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations #23)

“When the boy or grown-up learns what one might call specific technical languages, e.g. the use of charts and diagrams, descriptive geometry, chemical symbolism, etc. he learns more language games. (Remark: The picture we have of the language of the grown-up is that of a nebulous mass of language, his mother tongue, surrounded by discrete and more or less clear-cut language games, the technical languages” (Wittgenstein quoted in Phillips, 1977, pp 29 - 31)

Also in PI, remark #23, Wittgenstein asks the reader to "review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples:

  • Giving orders, and obeying them --
  • Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements --
  • Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) --
  • Reporting an event --
  • Speculating about an event --
  • Forming and testing a hypothesis --
  • Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams --
  • Making up a story; and reading it --
  • Play-acting --
  • Singing catches --
  • Guessing riddles --
  • Making a joke, telling it --
  • Solving a problem of practical arithmetic --
  • Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying." 

"It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of tools in language and of the ways they are used, multiplicity of kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians have said about the structure of language." (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations #23)

“If Wittgenstein and Saussure agree in using ‘grammar’ descriptively, they disagree about ... other matters. One is that Wittgenstein’s grammar has to do with uses of language (discourse conditions and discourse continuation) rather than forms and their combinations (morphology and syntax) ... Considering uses rather than forms is a deep rather than a superficial departure from classical linguistic methodology ... Studying uses of language makes context prominent, whereas the study of forms lends itself naturally to analysis.” (Garver, 1996, pg 151)

Whilst there are technical skills that one must develop in order to gain a command of language and literacy, technical skills on their own are not enough to engender comprehension. To truly understand what is being read or what is being heard, one needs to appreciate the context, aims, objective and ongoing concerns of the participants in the  - so to speak - conversation. Trusted Wittgensteinian colleague Rush Rhees (2006) would add,

"If you understand anything in language, you must understand what the dialogue is, and you must see how understanding grows as the dialogue grows ... For language is discourse, is speaking. It is telling people things and trying to follow them. And that is what you try to understand ... You understand when it adds to your understanding of the discussion. Or of what the discussion is about." (pg. 7)

Here "understandings" requires that one knows of, is a part of and cares about the discussion. Rhees uses the word "discussion" in a quite specific manner. Both Wittgenstein and Rhees want their readers to imagine situations in which speakers are dynamically involved in a give-and-take exchange that moves the participants to clarify understandings, explore intentions, develop pictures, and answer questions - stated directly or indirectly - that govern the current discussion (and the participants' needs and interests). In other words, there is an ongoing discussion of, let's say, nature and love, and it so happens that the sonnet, for instance, is one form and forum in which this discussion takes places amongst a community of people who have the desire to explore these questions, themes or knowledge.

“Following a rule, making a report, giving an order, and so on, are customs, uses, practices or institutions. They presuppose a human society, and our form of life.” (Phillips, 1977, p 36)

It is our life in words that comes under continual focus in the Philosophical Investigations, "we talk, we utter words, and only later get a picture of their life." in Part 2, 208e-209e. And, according to Vygotsky (1986), our words allow us to  "direct one's own mental processes with the aid of words or signs, [which] is an integral part of the process of [new] concept formation,'  (p. 108) We talk about nature. We talk about beauty. We talk about truth. We talk about money. We talk about sustainability. We talk about fairness. And doctors speak about symptoms and diagnoses. Over time, our understanding of key concepts grow and become more nuanced through experience.  Rather than seeking essential meanings (or dictionary definitions), Wittgenstein asks the reader to consider the history of our association with our words and to reflect upon the "picture of their life."

"The ball [my one-year-old child] sees is not yet the ball that I and his 4-year-old sister see, which we may tell one another is round, red, shiny, the size of a grapefruit, etc ... ” (Day, 2010, pg 211-212)

Therefore, if we are to base a language, literacy and numeracy pedagogy on the Philosophical Investigations, we would find that there would be an

  • emphasis on learning to use a range language and literacy forms in context;
  • emphasis on regular practice of particular games (e.g. reporting, storytelling, debating, etc) so as to encourage mastery and innovation;
  • emphasis of words as vessels for meaning that can be explored pictorially through maps, networks, collages and associations;
  • emphasis on developing flexibility in different ways to communicate one's understanding (prose, diagrams, mathematically);
  • emphasis on reflective practice;
  • emphasis on understanding the intention and significance of a text through an awareness that any message has a content (field), a form (mode) and an audience (tenor); and
  • allusion to the identities that coincide with some games over others (e.g. scientific discourse as opposed to literary discourse)

Most importantly, we gain a picture of language and literacy learning that knows no end, since there will always be new texts to master, new forms to unpack and new situations that will extend and challenge one's skills of interpretation, expression and execution.  That said, the child (or emerging learner) is not faced with the prospect of developing such complex skills from the get go. There is a progressive, temporal dimension to this learning where the child is supported by others to develop foundational skills which lead into competency which lead to mastery which lead to further disciplinary practice.

This layered nature of language and literacy learning is represented in the following four schematic images. At the heart/core of Figure 1, we have a Tractarian focus on linguistic structures. However, emanating from the core (like petals of a flower) are the various semiotic domains that one encounters/develops across one's lifetime, which sit nourished within a form of life. (Click here for a further analysis of the image.) In Figures 2 & 3, we are reminded that so-called core, structural skills remain developed "in context with others across time and for purposes ... with the assistance of passionate and visionary teachers who demonstrate a deep respect for individuals and their culture(s)." And in Figure 4, we acknowledge that learning is an interaction between internal (cognitive) factors, wilful (psychological) attributes and cultural (ecological) presences. As a consequence, we leave the Philosophical Investigations with a much more nuanced, multifaceted, and contextualised conceptualisation of language than the one we encountered in the Tractatus.


On Certainty (published posthumously in 1969 from collected notes from the last two years of the philosopher's life) 

If the Tractatus focuses on language as a form of representation and the Philosophical Investigations focuses on language as practices that one develops, then On Certainty focuses on the knowledge that one gains through our language and cultural practices. In many ways, On Certainty brings us full circle, since it asks the reader to reflect upon the "world picture" that he or she has developed through the vast learning experiences of his or her life. This is not too dissimilar to the "picture theory" of the Tractatus, except that a "world picture" is not an objective representation of the world. A world picture is the subjective picture of the world that one acquires through the knowledge and beliefs that one is led to ascribe to within the culture in which one grows. The interactions with adults, peers and respected texts shape what is and what is not to be investigated, valued or challenged.

"When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #472)

With On Certainty, we are asked to reflect on the origins of our concepts (words) and our language-games. 

"Our talk gets its meaning from the rest of the proceedings." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #229)

“Within a (discursive) practice P of a community, a knowledge claim K(i) should be or might indeed be justified by another knowledge claim K(i-1), which again might be justifiable by another knowledge claim K(i-2), etc. Practices have internal ways or standards of justification: ‘What people accept as a justification - is shewn by how they think and live’ (PI, 325).” (Kober, 1996, pg. 416)

Source: Image Courtesy of Dr Neil Anderson (2014)

Therefore, in On Certainty, Wittgenstein appeals to the material and cultural conditions that serve as the cauldron in which knowledge and understanding will brew, thereby leading to an image of (reading) comprehension that requires both perceptual acuity (skills) and links to the individual's knowledge, investigations and intellectual pursuits. 

We must be concerned by the vast system of knowledge that serves as the bedrock of how we come to know, interpret and anticipate events and utterances in the world. Being able to record and preserve this knowledge is essential for it to be passed on to future generations who we hope will find security in a world picture that will serve them in their way of life.

"Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #410)

"The child learns to believe a host of things ... Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #144) 

"The propositions describing this world-picture might be part of a kind of mythology. And their role is like that of rules of a game." (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #95)

This raises a political dilemma. Not all system of knowledge, or beliefs or culture are given equal access to flourish and mature within a community or society. Therefore, whilst Wittgenstein allusion to  cultural and intellectual diversity is alluring, “[Wittgenstein’s] pluralism raises thorny questions. How do we differentiate? ... What disassociations, links and possible transitions are there between different systems of thought and different world pictures? (Sluga, 2011, pg 70). It is important to recognise that our practice “is, after all, not the product of a free consensus … it is handed to us through the authority of parents, teachers, writers, academics, publishers, the media and finally even government.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 145) Hans Sluga does explore the politics of practice and this exploration is clear from his reference to conflicts over language;

“What if there is more than one language that lays claim to being the common medium of communication? What if the linguistic group is stratified by social and class divisions? … As with all rules of social life, we need to ask of these rules; whose rules are they? What authority do they possess? What do they demand from us? … There all kinds of institutions that regularise our everyday language (academics, textbooks, bureaucracies, churches, etc). (Sluga, 2011, page 128 to 129)

Therefore, Wittgenstein's final writing asks the readers to think more critically about their knowledge, the conditions through which that knowledge developed, how that knowledge is transmitted and by what authority, and how different conditions may have re-directed the types of knowledge pursued. If we were to base a language and literacy pedagogy on On Certainty, we would find that there would be an

  • emphasis on active, critical reflection on ideas and their origins;
  • emphasis on an awareness of the significance of certain ideas;
  • emphasis on respecting the ideas and beliefs of others, particularly through a respect of the culture that is the origin of ideas;
  • emphasis on reading widely and with curiosity with the knowledge that new ideas open up new perspectives on the world; and
  • emphasis on the need for teachers to orient students to the background knowledge upon which understanding rests.
"It is of paramount importance to recognize that in actual linguistic communities there is no equal access to linguistic resources. There are differences in upbringing, in schooling, in access to higher learning, and more generally in the social environment in which one leads one’s life. And these differences result in the mastery of different vocabularies and rhetorical devices; in different pronunciations, dictions, and writing styles; and in different discursive competences. It is important to note that language is not used in an abstract space of logical relations but in a social space that is structured by power relations.” (Medina, 2008, pg 99)


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Structure, Language-Games and Knowledge

As a result, we gain insights into three dimensions of language: language as structure and form; language as diverse practices; and specific knowledges conveyed to us in language. In each of these perspectives, both communities and individuals must use their imaginative and cognitive capacities to use, deploy and think through language in the great hurly burly of life.  

If we imagine a learner - let’s say a child - we shouldn’t assume that the learner will simply develop naturally because she gets older. She develops because of the assistance offered by more experienced peers or adults. She develops because of the opportunities offered to her. She develops ways of seeing, of acting, of valuing, of imaging and intervening in the world. She develops because her learning is reinforced by the context she inhabits. She develops because she is prompted to engage with tasks, games, problems and ideas that lie within her grasp, which - once held - can pull her forward. She develops because she is given the chance ... at least, we hope so.

Wittgenstein reminds us, "doesn’t understanding start with a proposition, with a whole proposition? Can you understand half a proposition?" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar). Whilst we could become an expert in a sliver of the pie - so to speak - this leave us with a less-than-balanced diet. In other words, we could become an expert in a structural, Tractarian view of language, but that would leave one with only one side of the story. Likewise, we could become enamoured with the ethnographic attributes of the Philosophical Investigations, yet this would ignore the elegance of the Tractarian picture of language, form and the imagination. Whilst I am on this line of reasoning, I might as well complete my thought. Neither the Tractatus or the Philosophical Investigations grapples with issues of culture, knowledge, ideology and power. Whilst Wittgenstein may not discuss these themes explicitly in On Certainty, they are the powerful foundations of the book's significance. 

I welcome you to Wittgenstein On Literacy. I am intrigued by knowledge, language and - particularly - literacy. On one side of the triangle, literacy acquisition is a technical challenge. On another, it is a social endeavour. On yet another, it extends the visual and social imagination. For me, at least, literacy is an area that draws together the many strands of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. We have the picture theory, states of affairs, aspect seeing, language games, mythologies, world pictures, labyrinths, ladders, flies escaping bottles and beetles stuck in boxes. We even have lions who talk. I welcome you to explore the journal, the notes and essays, the glossaries and readings, the areas devoted to language & literacy learning and teaching , and whatever may come in the future. Please explore and enjoy!

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  • Anderson, N. (2014). Holding in the Bottom While Sustaining the Top: A Balanced Approach for L2 Reading Instruction. Reading Horizons. Retrieved July 17, 2014, from http://www.readinghorizons.com/webinars/holding-in-the-bottom-while-sustaining-the-top-a-balanced-approach-for-l2-reading-instruction
  • Day, W. (2010). Wanting to say something: aspect-blindness and language. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 204 - 224). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Garver, N. (1996). Philosophy as grammar. In H. Sluga & D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein (pp. 139 – 170). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gee, J. P. (2003). Opportunity to learn: a language-based perspective on assessment. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 27 - 46
  • Kober, M. (1996). Certainties of a world-picture: the epistemological investigations of On Certainty In H. Sluga, H. and D. Stern (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Wittgenstein. (pp. 411 - 441) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Medina, J. (2008). Whose Meanings?: Resignifying Voices and Their Social Locations. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 22(2), 92–105. doi:10.1353/jsp.0.0030
  • Phillips, D. (1977) Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge.  London: MacMillan Press
  • Rhees, R. (2006). Wittgenstein and the possibility of discourse. (2nd Edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Tunmer, W., Chapman, J., Greaney, K., Prochnow, J., and Arrow, A. (2013). Why the New Zealand National Literacy Strategy has failed and what can be done about it: evidence from the progress in International Reading Literacy Studies (PIRLS) 2011 and Reading Recovery monitoring reports. Massey University Institute of Education.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Translation newly revised by Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.
  • _____________ (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • _____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • _____________  (1974). Philosophical Grammar. Edited by Rush Rhees. Translated by Anthony Kenny. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
  • _____________ (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.

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