What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.
Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)
By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell.
At this time in his life—around 1919, when he turned thirty—Wittgenstein wanted badly to transform himself. Convinced he was a moral failure, he took extreme steps to change his circumstances, divesting himself of his enormous family fortune (which he dispersed among his siblings, making sure he could never legally access it again); leaving the palatial family home he’d grown up in (it was literally called the “Palais Wittgenstein”); and looking for the kind of hard and honest work he hoped would distract him from his despair and allow him to do something of value. In choosing teaching he was influenced by a romantic idea of what it would be like to work with peasants—an idea he’d gotten from reading Tolstoy. His family was perplexed by his decisions. His sister Hermine told him that applying his genius to teaching children was like using a “precision instrument” to open crates. She reports his response:
You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet.
In 1920, after a year of training, Wittgenstein took up a post at an elementary school in Trattenbach. It was a tiny farming and factory village in the mountains south of Vienna; Wittgenstein accepted the job there after rejecting one in a town he decided was too cosmopolitan. (It had a park with a fountain in it.)
He cut a strange figure in Trattenbach. Since, earlier, he’d tried to apply for work under a false name and had been found out, he was open this time about his background—the citizens knew he was descended of one of the richest families in Austria. Yet he lived in ostentatious poverty: he slept in the school kitchen and ate cocoa and oatmeal for dinner out of a pot he never cleaned. The adults of the village distrusted him from the beginning, but he made a more positive impression on some of his students. When one biographer visited Trattenbach fifty years later, he met with former pupils who still remembered Wittgenstein’s lessons, some of which were as charmingly philosophical as one might hope: one student recalled being introduced, at that young age, to the Liar’s Paradox (the Cretan who declares “All Cretans are liars …”).
But Wittgenstein was “interested in everything,” and he engaged his students in a sort of “project-based learning” that wouldn’t be out of place in the best elementary classrooms today. They designed steam engines and buildings together, and built models of them; dissected animals; examined things with a microscope Wittgenstein brought from Vienna; read literature; learned constellations lying under the night sky; and took trips to Vienna, where they stayed at a school run by his sister Hermine. Just to get to the train required a twelve-mile hike through the mountainous forest around Trattenbach; on the return trip, the students made this hike after midnight. On the way, Wittgenstein would ask them the names they’d learned of the plants in the forest. In Vienna they would discuss the architectural styles of the buildings they visited and look for examples of the machines they had modeled. Another project grew into what was, remarkably, the only book Wittgenstein published in his lifetime besides the Tractatus: a spelling dictionary he developed with the help of his students, which briefly saw official use in Austrian schools.
His expectations for his students were incredibly high. They were regularly made to work well beyond the standards for their ages, especially in math: Wittgenstein taught algebra and geometry to all of his elementary students. Some excelled and loved him. His sister reported seeing his students “positively climbing over each other in their eagerness” to answer questions. In each of the towns where he worked, Wittgenstein attracted small groups of devoted students whom he tutored for hours after the school day ended. These were always boys; he seems not to have been as successful with his female students, maybe in part because he held them to the same intellectual standard as the boys when the other adults in their towns did not.
We all struggle to form a self. Great teaching, Wittgenstein reminds us, involves taking this struggle and engaging in it with others; his whole life was one great such struggle. In working with poor children, he wanted to transform himself, and them. Their parents had no interest in his unforgiving honesty and/or his ambitions for their children. Thus he was in constant conflict with the towns where he taught; in his six years on the job, he worked at four different schools. Once he so despaired of a student’s narrow future, and was so convinced of his potential, that he proposed to adopt the boy and pay for his education in Vienna. The student’s parents declined the offer.
But Wittgenstein’s zeal also led him to abuse the children entrusted to him. It’s hard now to know how consistent his use of corporal punishment was with standard practice at the time. He would strike students not just for misbehavior but for their failure to grasp the questions he put to them—and this led to the shameful end of his teaching career. One day, Wittgenstein hit a student named Haidbauer, who was sickly. When Haidbauer collapsed after the blow, Wittgenstein carried him to the headmaster’s office and fled. A group of parents—who had apparently wanted Wittgenstein fired for some time—filed a complaint, which led to a hearing. He was cleared, ultimately, but he had already resigned, and years later he confessed to friends that he had lied at the hearing to protect himself. These events became known as the Haidbauer Incident, and they remained in the area’s public memory for years.
The event precipitated Wittgenstein’s leaving, but it wasn’t the sole cause—through his stint as a teacher, a steady stream of letters and visitors from the world of philosophy had reminded him of his genius. In his absence, the Tractatus had helped found a whole movement, the Vienna Circle of logical positivists. It was as though a Wittgenstein-shaped hole was forming in the philosophical community, making it very easy for him to go back and fill it.
When he did return, though, he didn’t simply take up leadership of his disciples. The “late Wittgenstein,” as scholars call him, is radically different than the “early”; among other things, he abandoned the idea that language could only function by picturing objects in the world. There have been many suppositions as to the catalyst for this change—his time with children is not popular among them. And yet his later work is full of references to teaching and children. His Philosophical Investigations opens with a long discussion of how children learn language, in order to investigate what the essence of language is. And Wittgenstein is sometimes explicit about the connection; he once said that in considering the meaning of a word, it’s helpful to ask, “How would one set about teaching a child to use this word?” If nothing else, the style of his later work is absolutely teacherly; his post-return writings are so full of thought experiments phrased in the imperative that they can feel like exercises in a textbook or transcripts of a class discussion. “Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’ … What is common to them all?—Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’—but look and see whether there is anything common to all … ”
The style reflects Wittgenstein’s new aim, which was pedagogical. In his later writings, Wittgenstein still held that philosophical questions are meaningless, and that they often result from looking for definitions of terms outside the contexts in which they’re used. But he was no longer content to simply state this. He wanted to make specific questions actually dissolve for his reader, to bring about a change in perspective that shows that the questions mean nothing. “The real discovery,” he wrote, “is the one which enables to stop doing philosophy when I want to—the one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions.”
This is why his later writing is so intense; it engages you directly. To work, it has to actually make you engage in the same radical introspection he did. If one is receptive to them, these books are potentially transformative. I think that’s why Wittgenstein, almost uniquely among modern analytic philosophers, has such a strong literary appeal. (That, and his pure and purifying personality.) Among the few writers who have treated his teaching years with interest and respect are novelists like W.G. Sebald, whose “Paul Bereyter” chapter in The Emigrants includes many details from Wittgenstein’s years in the mountains—such as the fact that he once boiled the skin off a dead cat so he could use its skeleton to teach his children anatomy. (Sebald changes the animal to a fox, for some reason.)
For two years after college, I taught middle-school science in New York. It took very little time for me to realize it was far more intellectually intense than I’d expected. I kept running, in practice, into ideas I’d encountered only as abstractions before. In an unpublished remark, Wittgenstein wrote that “any explanation has its foundation in training. (Educators ought to remember this.)” It’s good advice. I remember, for example, teaching a unit on “energy.” At some point, after I’d offered some unhelpful definition of energy—“the capacity for an object to do work”—and walked through its different forms, a student stopped me. “But what is energy?” It was clear she was asking me to name some thing, visible or not, that she could call “energy.” But the expectation that there’s something out there bearing the name energy is more confusing than helpful. I flailed. But as my lesson continued, the word kept coming back. “The flame added energy to the heat.” “That car had more energy than the other.” With training, the kids started to use the word right of their own accord. Their confusion was gone. There’s a big chunk of Wittgenstein’s late philosophy in stories like this. I can easily imagine him, in his devotion to clarity and truth, leaning down to show a student, and himself, that some such question need not torture them anymore.
Spencer Robins teaches children and adults. He lives in Los Angeles.