Why Wittgenstein? Why not simply a site about literacy and learning?

Why did I create a website about Wittgenstein and learning? Wouldn't it have been smarter to create a direct site about language, literacy, numeracy and learning? And refer to curriculum outcomes rather than a philosopher's axioms?  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 don't feel it will take too much time to explain myself, and I will do so in reference to three of the major texts.


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Firstly, Wittgenstein's early work exhibited a particular fascination with the way in which language (our sentences) represented the world, or aspects of the world. That is, Wittgenstein is keen to explore how our sentences can capture a picture of a fact that can be extracted by a listener or a reader who can proceed to experience a fact or an event without actually experiencing it directly. 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 that can - upon decoding - influence our knowledge and our ways of seeing. Imagine - for a moment - the humble recipe or journal recount that convey the concrete. 

There are additional themes in this early work that do not receive as much attention in philosophical circles, but which have direct bearing on language and literacy. Firstly, 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. This digression in his argument recognises that languages and literacies are learnt. Furthermore, he emphasises that our sentences are in need of processing, since a proposition includes all that is required to project a picture, but the thinker must still extract the picture from the sentences.

Second, he 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. This observation opens up the speculative dimension of language and literacy. 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 activity that can be fostered through literacy. 

And there is yet another dimension in Wittgenstein's early work that can be brought to bear. It is a dimension of language that Wittgenstein introduces but remains silent on. This includes conceptual, religious, ethical, aesthetic, technical and other disciplinary languages (or discourses). There is evidence to suggest that Wittgenstein wanted to write about this dimension, but found that the meaning of such language is not presented in such simple terms as unambiguous, descriptive pictures. Specialised or disciplinary languages derive their sense and meaning within the practice in which the language is used (e.g. in religious practices, or scientific practice, or artistic practice, etc). In Witgensteinian terms, their meanings must be shown and become manifest in the practices of the language speakers, which is a topic that Wittgenstein would reserve for investigation later in his career. 

If we are to base a language and literacy 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;
  • allusion to the drawing of interpretations and inferences from language; and
  • exploration of the difference between fact and speculation; of description and judgement; and of sensical and conceptual discourse.

Most importantly, students are asked to challenge themselves to represent experience in words and assess experiences that are conveyed in propositions.

Philosophical Investigations

By the time we find our way to the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein has turned his attention squarely on the very thing he avoided 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, 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 and our education.

"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)

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:

  • Giving orders, and obeying them --
  • Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements --
  • Constructing an objection 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. 

Then, is the Tractatus wrong by seeking a single essence of language? Yes and no. The Tractatus is very valuable. It presents two types of language-games that should be admired: the game of ascertaining sense and truth and the game of developing rules. Both games are practiced regularly in Western rational philosophy, and are highly valued (or should be). In this sense, the Tractatus is a great achievement, but not the definitive achievement that its author was hoping for. That does not diminish that a Tractarian view is not one that could be fostered in young people as a part of their educated selves. At the same time, we would want young people to also encounter ethical discourse, imaginative discourse, scientific discourse, political discourse, and more.

“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)

Therefore, if we are to base a language and literacy 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 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.  

If we combine a Tractarian pedagogy with an Investigations pedagogy we end up with something similar to the Intensive and Extensive pedagogy represented below.

Courtesy of Dr Neil Anderson

On Certainty

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.

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)

"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)

Then, 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)

Therefore, if we are 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.

Structure, Language-Games & Knowledge

As a result, we gain insights into three dimensions of language: language as structure and form; language as diverse practices; language used to convey knowledge. 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.  These dimensions are represented in the diagram to the right.

"Doesn’t understanding start with a proposition, with a whole proposition? Can you understand half a proposition?" (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar)

The above applies to all three dimensions. Understanding comes from a full command of the forms, uses and knowledge inherent in our utterances.