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? Clearly, a more general site would allow for more flexibility. I must admit that Wittgenstein's philosophy can appear obscure at the best of times. 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.

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.

"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.

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Book Tip: Wittgenstein Flies a Kite: A Story of Models of Wings and Models of the World

by Susan G. Sterrett

Susan Sterrett present a highly readable, compelling narrative that parallels Wittgenstein's early philosophy in the Tractatus with the engineering developments of the early twentieth century, particularly in aeronautical research. Sterrett presents Wittgenstein as one who is compelled by the image of sentences as models (or pictures) of states of affairs. He is presented as one who is struck by the idea that propositions can construct models of reality, which can focus our attention on the most salient aspects of the world.

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Wittgenstein and the Elements of Reading

It is not particularly novel to say that reading is a process that involves decoding, meaning making and interpretation (or assessment). It is also quite straightforward to say that this sequence occurs within a context in which factors such as the immediate purpose, expectations and other participants affect how and why one reads. The sequence is represented in the following diagram (with further commentary to follow).

In Wittgensteinian terms, the reader progresses from aspect seeing (decoding) to meaning making (picture theory) to assessing (language games). The reader sees the text, gathers some sense from the text and extracts some meaning from the text as part of overarching conversations and conventions.


Let us imagine that I have a newspaper article in front of me. In order for me to have any hope of understanding the text, I need to take the following into account:

  • I need to be able to decode the language if I am going to have any hope of extracting any meaning from this text;
  • Even if I can decode the text, I will need to be able to extract some sense from the sentences in text, which would involve construing the states of affairs being represented (or referred to) in the text;
  • I will need to be struck by the content of the article, which means I will need to know the significance of what I am reading, of what particular details mean, of why the article was written in the first place, and of the tradition of long  information reporting; and 
  • I will need to be part of the greater conversation ( of the language-game ) of which the text is part.

What if it was not a newspaper article but an economic text? I would be at a loss even though I may have sophisticated decoding skills and robust general comprehension practices. My exclusion from general conversations of economics demonstrates that the above process works just was well in the reverse. That is, if I am aware of the "conversation" to which the text belongs and I understand the intention of the reader-writing exchange, then I am in a better position to know what may and may not be significant in the text, even I may need some help. I may be able to read more strategically and I am also in a better position to clarify ambiguities in the text because I have prior experience and knowledge to call upon when I am stuck by particularly dense or awkward phrasings.

In a teaching sense, certain texts may be more or less within a learning zone of proximal development . We want to be able to facilitate contexts in which students have the time to practice development in each of the four areas:

  • decoding --> moving toward fluency
  • meaning making --> process information to interpret, visualise, draw connections, compare, represent, clarify, etc
  • assessing --> extract significance, apply ideas, understand intentions, respond and react, summarise and synthesise, etc. 
  • participating --> being part of knowledge communities and practices in which it may be necessary to consult a text in order to take part. 

Last but not least ... whenever I see the following quote, I think of the satisfaction when someone has thoroughly comprehended a text:

"Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Passion for looking, not thinking

From "Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking" by Ray Monk in the New Statesman on 25 August 2013.

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"Thus, at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in ‘seeing connections’ ”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally. That is why, towards the end of the book, he devotes so much space to a discussion of the phenomenon of seeing ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit. When we “change the aspect” under which we look at the picture, seeing it now as a duck, now as a rabbit, what changes? Not the picture, for that stays the same. What changes is not any object but rather the way we look at it; we see it differently, just as we see a face differently when we look at it, first as an expression of happiness and then as an expression of pride."