2.02.2002

There is much to talk about when it comes to the opening of the Philosophical Investigations. Why does Wittgenstein open in this way? What strategy is he employing? What are the possible alternatives? We know he struggled with the organization of the text to the very end. What was he seeking to accomplish with this opening scene? In the classroom we can discern two distinct language-games, two distinct, conventionally recognizable activities: the game of the teacher and the game of the learner. What is more, there are areas of imbrication between the two that that the teacher can be student and the student can be teacher. When you raised this as the problem, "What am I doing when I....?" I began to think about the relationship between you and your students. Is it a looking glass relationship? Is what you think you are doing mirrored in the eyes of the students you are teaching? Once I began down this path, I found the boundary between student and teacher porous.
With each level of education, the line becomes less discernible. Students move to higher levels of conceptualization and, hopefully, their linguistic skills facilitate autodidacticism. At some point, probably earlier than I thought, students blur the line completely by becoming their own teachers. At least at the level of education. In terms of indoctrinating young people into the social order, the line between teacher and student is maintained as impermeable. This image of the line is backed by sanction.
Wittgenstein observes this in retaining the setting of respect for elders held by Augustine.
This is also the setting of Wittgenstein's own foray into primary education. He went into teaching after the First World War for a few reasons. One, psychologically, it was the only sort of work he could imagine doing (and here we might recall that he was heir to one of the great fortunes of Europe. He did not have to work.) Second, with his Tractatus, Wittgenstein believed he had solved all the problems of philosophy. There was no point in returning to Cambridge. The experience was a disaster. Wittgenstein could be a cruel disciplinarian. Famously, he smacked a young student who then began to bleed from the ear. When asked about the incident he apparently lied. This became the basis for a letter of confession he wrote and gave to friends years later. He also returned to the village to ask forgiveness from the girl and her parents. This leads to a third reason for going out to the country to be a schoolteacher. He was undergoing the repercussions of a religious experience. After leaving teaching, he became a gardener at a monastery.
His relationship with his university students is the stuff of legend. Why is the framing of philosophical questions and engaging in thinking so difficult? He would approach these entwined questions from various angles and implore his students to help him. Rarely did he receive help in a usable form. What he imparted to his students was an image of philosophy in action. After experiencing the intensity of Wittgenstein's thinking as it was performed before them, these students would be embarrassed by their shelves of philosophy books. It is telling that Wittgenstein agreed to supervise several doctoral students. None of them ever finished their degrees. Stephen Toulmin recalls the advice he received: study with Wittgenstein to learn philosophizing, work with Braithwaite or another member of the faculty to get your degree. Wittgenstein did not want disciples, but, in the end, that is all he managed to turn out. The power of his personality was greater than the power of his philosophy.
What is learning? In Wittgenstein's view it has something to do with the traversability of language-games. Plato gives us the unforgettable image of learning as emerging from darkness. In the darkness of Wittgenstein's time, learning had to adjust to the impossibility of transcendence or other vertical metaphors. Rather, everything is achieved horizontally, on the level of the street in the ancient city of language. Learning is travel from one language-game to another; individuality is best thought of as a consequence of the uniqueness of this journey. We are composed of distinct constellations of language-games.
I need to think more about this. We learn our first language. We can acquire others. I will try to return to this image of education while the iron is still hot.

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