20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Education

Wittgenstein's Children: Some Implications for Teaching and Otherness

Yasushi Maruyama
Florida State University

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: The later Wittgenstein uses children in his philosophical arguments against the traditional views of language. Describing how they learn language is one of his philosophical methods for setting philosophers free from their views and enabling them to see the world in a different way. The purpose of this paper is to explore what features of children he takes advantage of in his arguments, and to show how we can read Wittgenstein in terms of education. Two children in Philosophical Investigations are discussed. The feature of the first child is the qualitative difference from adults. Wittgenstein uses the feature to criticize Augustinian pictures of language which tell us that children learn language by ostensive definition alone. The referential theory of meaning is so strong that philosophers fail to see the qualitative gap and to explain language-learning. The second child appears in an arithmetical instruction. Although he was understood to master counting numbers, he suddenly shows deviant reactions. Wittgenstein argues against the mentalistic idea of understanding by calling attention to the potential otherness of the child. This could happen anytime the child has not learned counting correctly. The two features show that teaching is unlike telling, an activity toward the other who does not understand our explanations. Since we might not understand learners because of otherness, the justification of teaching is a crucial problem that is not properly answered so long as otherness is unrecognized. As long as we ignore otherness, we would not be aware that we might mistreat learners.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Ludwig Wittgenstein is a philosopher who often uses educational situations to examine philosophical puzzles. Asking how a word is taught is one of his philosophical methods. He invents imaginary situations in which children learn language, and describes how they learn there. He investigates the possibilities of concepts by considering how children could learn the concepts. The purpose of this paper is to explore what features of children he takes advantage of in his philosophical arguments, and to show whether and how we can read Wittgenstein in terms of education.

Some scholars have expected Wittgenstein to contribute to pedagogy and educational research directly. Bartley claims, for example, that Wittgenstein is involved in child psychology. (1) Hardwick looks for pedagogical conclusions in Wittgenstein's philosophy. (2) Those scholars are likely to say that Wittgenstein merely suggests what empirical studies discover about language learning. Indeed, if he were interested in education itself, his comments about pedagogy would be trivial. He does not present any pedagogical theories, but refers to what we take for granted about language learning. His concern, however, is in philosophy. He rather uses the educational situations for philosophical arguments. Thus, we should not search for pedagogical advice in his philosophy. I will not discuss the negative topic here, that is, how Wittgenstein is not an pedagogical theorist, but talk about a positive one: if we can learn anything about education from his philosophy, what is it?

I shall extract some features from children that Wittgenstein illustrates in the first half of Philosophical Investigations, part I. (3) I pick out two children: the first child has just begun to learn language; and the second child, as a pupil, is in the process of learning basic arithmetic. The feature of the first child is that he is qualitatively different from us, and that of the second is that he is the potential other. These features enable us to think of teaching deeply. We will see that the notion of teaching requires the other who does not understand us.

Wittgenstein's Method

Asking how a word is taught is one of Wittgenstein's philosophical methods. Let me review his intention of questioning language-teaching briefly. His comment on the method was noted in his lecture on aesthetics:

One thing we always do when discussing a word is to ask how we were taught it. Doing this on the one hand destroys a variety of misconceptions, on the other hand gives you a primitive language in which the word is used. (4)

The method is used to demolish fallacious views of language and to provide us with primitive models of language in which we can see the functions of words clearly. Wittgenstein presumes that philosophical problems arise when philosophers are occupied with a single picture of language and they cannot see any other functions of language. (5) Since a general theory of meaning, for example, tells that the meaning of a word is the object the word signifies, we would seek objects as meanings for any words in vain. In the highly complicated forms of our language, the misconceptions of language prevent us from having clear vision. When we see, however, how words are used in a primitive form of language, we recognize the aim and function of the words there and then the misconceptions disappear. (6) The primitive models set us free from the occupying misconceptions and enable us to see the world in another way. Wittgenstein calls the primitive models 'language games' and characterizes them as the forms of language with which children learn their native language. (7) The method, describing how a word is taught, contributes to dissolving the philosophical problems.

Wittgenstein's question of language-teaching, thus, is not empirical but conceptual. In order to show a better picture of language, for example, he examines the logical conditions of teaching, in other words, the conceptual prerequisites for the accomplishment of teaching. Considering language-teaching by ostensive definition, he concludes that, since explanation presupposes certain linguistic skills of learners, children on the first stage of language-learning must be trained before they understand what is explained. (8) In Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, he also states whom to teach: "I describe the language-game 'Bring something red' to someone who can himself already play it. I could only teach it to others." (9) While we describe a language game to those who understand our explanations or share the language game with us, we can only teach the language game to those who do not understand the explanations or do not share the language game. What Wittgenstein does here by examining the logical conditions of teaching is to criticize a traditional idea of language-learning, which is misled by a philosophical need for the general theory of language: Since the meaning of a word, for example, is its object, we can teach children how to use words by pointing at objects; or, since the work of language is description, we can teach children how to play language games by describing them. It should be noted that Wittgenstein gives children an important role in his arguments. They appear as those who do not understand our explanations. I shall discuss the role of his children in more detail and then return to 'teaching.'

The First Child: Qualitative Difference

The word 'children' means sons and/or daughters, or young people. In the latter case it implies someone unskillful, innocent, or immature. When we use the concept of 'children,' we might compare children to adults, who are experienced. Thus, 'children' is both a factual and a logical concept. 'Children' does not only indicate actual human beings but also expresses such beings as are different from adults. The logical feature manifests the difference between someone who already knows and someone else who does not know yet — what might be called the epistemological gap.

One of the ways that Wittgenstein uses educational examples is to show the nature of the difference between those who know and those who do not. He thinks that we can see the functioning of language clearly in the epistemological gap. What is important here is that his arguments rely on a qualitative gap, which is not the difference of mere quantity of knowledge. Children in his writings do not understand us not only because they have less knowledge than we have, but also because they are qualitatively different from us.

The qualitative difference of children works in Wittgenstein's critique of Augustinian picture of language. Philosophical Investigations begins with a quotation from Augustine's Confessions in which he recalls how he learned language as a child:

When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. .... Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified.... (10)

Augustine asserts that he learned language by 'ostensive definition' that a teacher utters a word, pointing to an object that is the meaning of the word. After quoting, Wittgenstein extracts the following ideas from Augustinian picture of language: every individual word has a meaning; all words are names, i.e. stand for objects; and the meaning of a word is the object it stands for.

For Wittgenstein, those ideas are misleading. He criticizes the Augustinian picture of language, by showing how a child cannot learn language by ostensive definition alone. Wittgenstein questions, first, how we teach the use of words such as 'yesterday,' 'probably,' 'if,' or 'the' by ostensive definition. The idea that all words stand for objects is so strong that it is easy to ignore words other than names and predicates for objects. He suspects, furthermore, that we can get a child to understand even words related to objects. What is taught by ostensive definition could be variously interpreted: the name of the object, its number, its shape, its color or others. It is no use saying "This color is red" because they need to know what the meaning of the word 'color' is in order to understand the explanation. Can we, however, teach the meaning of 'color' to the child who has never learned any color words?

By showing that a child does not learn language in such a way as Augustine describes, Wittgenstein argues against the Augustinian picture of language, that is, the misleading ideas of meaning. Since those ideas seem very plausible in explaining how language works and how an adult learns a language, it is easy for us to assume that a child learns language in the same way as an adult does. Wittgenstein concludes:

Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And "think" would here mean something like "talk to itself." (11)

Augustine's error is to think of the child as a small adult. He does not find any qualitative difference between the child and an adult. He supposes that the child has not had a language but it is able to think in the same way as a foreigner who has his language and just does not know our language. The child beginning to learn language, however, is qualitatively different.

The Second Child: Potential Otherness

While Wittgenstein puts a stress on the difference between foreigners and children, he does not simply assume that children will be understood as they are growing up. They could suddenly show up as others who do not share language games with us. Wittgenstein describes such a difficult situation:

Now we get the pupil to continue a series (say + 2) beyond 1000 — and he writes 1000, 1004, 1008, 1012.

We say: "You were meant to add two: look how you began the series! — He answers: "Yes, isn't it right? I thought that was how I was meant to do it." — Or suppose he pointed to the series and said: "But I went on in the same way." — It would now be no use to say: "But can't you see ....?" — and repeat the old examples and explanations. (12)

We are teaching a pupil basic arithmetic. He was already trained for counting numbers and addition, and now seems to master them because he wrote 2, 4, 6, 8... when we asked him to continue numbers in adding 2. He writes, however, 1004 after 1000 when we get him to do the same thing beyond 1000. We correct his answer and encourage him to pay more attention. But what if he claims that he is doing the same thing as he goes beyond 1000? We would say that he misunderstood what we taught, and then repeat the old examples that we already showed him even though he misunderstood it through the same examples. It is logically possible, indeed, that more than one rule is induced from a finite number of examples. He could interpret differently what we taught. However, we accordingly have no way to know how he interpreted it until he takes a mistake. We cannot know whether or not we taught and he learned.

Wittgenstein uses this fictional situation in attacking the idea that the understanding of a word is a mental state or process from which the applications of the word flow. The mentalistic idea explains language learning and use like this: the pupil induced a rule from concrete examples that we gave; he interprets the rule whenever he acts out what was taught. The difficult situation of teaching shows us that there is something wrong with the picture of action. Do you interpret rules you have in mind in advance every time you act? If you think of teaching, according to the mentalist picture, as conveying ideas from teacher's mind/brain to learner's, teaching would be even impossible because you cannot check out learner's mind/brain and find out what kind of ideas he interpreted. Wittgenstein shows us that our practices with language as well as teaching are done in a different way. They are based on repetition, but not on something fundamental, like the certainty of direct experience.

The second child as a pupil is described as the potential other. He was trained for counting and addition, and is understood to master them. It could turn out anytime, however, that he has not learned them or has learned different activities.

Teaching and Otherness

Asking how a word is taught, as we have seen, is Wittgenstein's method for showing us how to see the world in a different way from what we are occupied with. His two children play key roles in his arguments. The qualitative distinction of the first child from adults disproves the referential theory of meaning. The possibility that the second child turns out to be the other discredits the mentalistic idea of understanding. Wittgenstein successfully uses those features of children.

The two features of children, the qualitative distinction and the potential otherness, make clear an aspect of teaching. The notion of teaching requires others. When Wittgenstein characterizes teaching as training, teaching is an activity toward those who do not share our language game and thus do not understand our explanations. In a conversation with his interlocutor about how we teach a pupil the meaning of the expression "to say something to oneself," Wittgenstein argues against the interlocutor's assumption that the pupil explains the meaning to himself with private ostensive definition, and Wittgenstein writes:

I should like to say: you regard it much too much as a matter of course that one can tell anything to anyone. That is to say: we are so much accustomed to communication through language, in conversation, that it looks to us as if the whole point of communication lay in this: someone else grasps the sense of my words — which is something mental: he as it were takes it into his own mind. (13)

Wittgenstein's point is this: through the seemingly successful cases of communication, we are likely to misunderstand that communication consists of exchanging something mental. I read a great emphasis on the difference between teaching and telling in the passage above. Teaching is more like an unsuccessful trial than telling — Wittgenstein, thus, uses an educational situation in which we can hardly imagine that mental phenomena are the main factors of communication — because teaching is an activity toward the other who does not understand our explanations.

While telling presumes someone who shares our language game, teaching requires the other. It can be said, of course, that telling and explaining as well as training are modes of teaching. Indeed, an activity of teaching proceeds from training to telling gradually. Or teaching is a broad notion that covers both training and telling. Teaching is rather an activity in which a teacher should suppose that potential otherness could appear any time.

Otherness can be seen clearly in light of Wittgenstein's treatment of solipsism. Traditional solipsism is the view that only oneself exists. Otherness does not matter there at all. Wittgenstein accepted part of the solipsism in Tractatus and thought out its new version, that is, the solipsism of the metaphysical subject. (14) The metaphysical subject does not exist in the world but it is the limit of the world. This Tractarian solipsism allows others to exist and admits the possibility of communication with them. The general propositional form guarantees that others understand what I say. In terms of intelligibility, however, telling someone else is the same as saying to oneself, like monologue. Since there is no genuine other, who does not understand my explanations, otherness does not matter here, either. Later Wittgenstein left the monological world and arrived in the space where we encounter the other who calls our intelligibility into question by means of his otherness.

Teaching happens in the space where the other exists. There remain two crucial points about teaching: the other in teaching is not the being who merely stands next to us but the being whom we have to teach; and, since he is different from us, we could not understand him, either. What should be asked is how we can teach such a stranger that we do not understand and how we have the right to teach him. These questions are not properly answered, however, until otherness is recognized. As long as we ignore otherness, we would not be aware that we might project ourselves to a learner and mistreat him.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) William Warren Bartley, III, Wittgenstein, 2nd ed. (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1985), 73 ff. "Theory of Language and Philosophy of Science as Instruments of Educational Reform: Wittgenstein and Popper as Austrian Schoolteachers," Methodological and Historical Essays in the Natural and Social Sciences, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 14 (1974), 324 ff.

(2) Charles Hardwick, Language Learning in Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), 11-12.

(3) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953). I mean sections until the private language argument by "the first half of Philosophical Investigations, Part I." While children play significant roles in the argument, e. g., in the sections 244 and 257, I will not discuss their roles in this paper.

(4) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), 1.

(5) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, sections 109 - 116.

(6) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 5.

(7) Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the "Philosophical Investigations" (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), 17. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 7.

(8) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, sections 6, 26 - 32.

(9) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 2, trans. C. G. Luckhardt and M. A. E. Aue (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), section 313.

(10) Cited from Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 1.

(11) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 32.

(12) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 185.

(13) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 363.

(14) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, (London: Routledge, 1961), 5.6 ff.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage