Pedagogy of the Self: Wittgenstein and Education

This article was first published by on 15/01/2014.

The study of education and consequently its application as a means for social change owes more than we might think to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His work makes no direct attributions to pedagogy yet traverses many of the same fundamental questions of language, philosophy, and behaviour. Wittgenstein’s philosophy seeks to elucidate the ways philosophers make discursive sense, and quite often their insistence on nonsense. The purpose of his work is to highlight the method by which we can make this understanding explicit through language, a method which is inherently dialogic and therefore educational.

The later work of Wittgenstein which he laid out in various notes and papers, eventually becoming The Philosophical Investigations (1953) is in many ways entirely opposed to that of his earlier magnum opus Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Such an about turn has left many admirers and scholars of Wittgenstein’s work either confused or patently tribal as to which constitutes his true thought process. Here I will seek to cover both in relation to any pedagogical lessons we can learn from his work.

Wittgenstein is a rationalist, albeit a rather difficult one to place. As a philosopher he sought to link the opposed fields of analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. He was specifically concerned with logical positivism in his early work the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, suggesting that the solution to philosophical problems lay in our ability to use precise statements for which there could be evidence, also referred to as synthetic propositions (1921). The only correct philosophical method to Wittgenstein at this time would be to say nothing except that which can be said with meaning. To communicate in a way devoid of meaning is not to communicate at all.

It was during this time that Wittgenstein proposed his concept of language games. This essentially expresses the idea that all meaning must be constructed on the basis of context. Words have meaning due to the fact they are used in a variety of ways, they have a multiplicity meaning, and they do not require clear definition. These ideas owed a lot to Gottlob Frege’s work On Sense and Reference (1892) which questioned whether words can have any definite meaning outside of the context of a sentence. For Wittgenstein the self forms within these linguistic and cultural practices as a construction of discourse.

These observations provide a potential critique of the traditional view of liberal education, a view which is concerned with the development of the mind and the autonomous person (Peters & Marshall, 1999). Notions which place the self and the subject as the fundamental concerns of education become tenuous when we understand the self and discourse as non-separate entities. We should seek to correctly identify philosophical problems through our teaching, thereby transmitting good habits which prevent us from holding mistaken beliefs. In short the idea of the teacher and their teachings is a false distinction; there is only that which is said in that place at that time and the meaning we assign to it.

Conversely in The Philosophical Investigations towards the end of his life Wittgenstein espoused the idea that language acquires meaning from the way in which it is used. Language occurs as part of an activity or a ‘form of life’ (1953) not an objective point of reference. This stems from Wittgenstein’s later focus on language as a product of rule following and representation. This should not be mistaken as a focus on how we acquire those rules and representations however; see Chomsky (1957) and Fodor (1975) for a cognitive explanation of how this comes to pass. The way in which the individual establishes their relation to these rules and recognises how and why they should be put into practice is what is important for the educator, not as was suggested in his previous writings, the context within which the language seems to exist.

Here Wittgenstein is proposing that rather than seek truth (in life, in education, or even at all) we seek new ways of thinking; that we should think for ourselves. Classically a child is ‘trainable’ in a socially structured environment in which the ability or competence to be taught is already mastered by the teacher (Williams, 1994). The goal of teaching therefore is to enable learners to ‘see’ rather than interpret (Budd, 1987). Wittgenstein chooses to emphasise the postmodern respect for difference instead and therefore does not see the self as essentially dialogical as the likes of Habermas and Heidegger do, it is more representative to say that he sees the self as pedagogical. To presuppose that our language or objects have any essential order or shape is wrong to Wittgenstein, they only have use, and this is true of how we educate also.

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in regards to education can be read as this therefore: we do not share the otherness of those being taught, nor can we observe whether they understand our explanations (Maruyama, 2006). We assume, quite wrongly, that the dialogic form is controlled solely by the questioner in the classic Socratic sense. However, the rules by which language is employed may well coincide perfectly with how it is used, yet this does not mean to say they are descriptive of its actual use (Kuusela, 2008). As such we can never be certain of what is being understood and can only strive forward in a confused form of mutual edification.

Combining these divergent thought processes is difficult and perhaps impossible but that does not mean to say they are incomprehensible. Wittgenstein’s work is confusing and at times contradictory yet it remains unique in its breadth and precision in regards to how language can be used as a tool for philosophical excavation, and for that matter there remains a great deal of interest to the educator as well.

Budd, M. (1987) Wittgenstein on Seeing Aspects. Mind, 96 (381)
Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. Mouton de Gruyter, Boston.
Fodor, J.A. (1975) The Language of Thought. Thomas Cromwell, Boston.
Frege, G. (1892) On Sense and Reference. Accessed Online [20/12/2013] at‎
Kuusela, O. (2008) The Struggle Against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, London.
Maruyama, Y. (2006) The Teaching/Telling Distinction Revisited. In The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul 2003, pp.93-97, Philosophical Society of Turkey.
Peters, M. & Marshall, J. (1999) Wittgenstein: Philosophy, Postmodernism, Pedagogy. Bergin & Garvey, London.
Williams, M. (1994) The Significance of Learning in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 24 (2), pp.173-204
Wittgenstein, L. (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, London.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.


‘A Black Life Ain’t Worth Nothing’: The tale of a lawful killing

Wednesday January 8 2014 will be heralded as a watershed moment for the justice system of England & Wales. On this day, just over one and a half years since the death of Mark Duggan a jury of eight to two ruled that his shooting by officers of the Metropolitan Police (Met) was lawful.

Mark Duggan was first and foremost a living individual, an individual who now lies dead due to the negligence and trigger happy policing of the Met. It is unfortunate however that we cannot end the explanation of injustice simply through that reasoning alone, we must inevitably point out that Mark Duggan was a young black male. It is fair to say that if you are a young male belonging to an ethnic minority your chances of having some negative contact with the police throughout the UK are fairly high. If you are a young black male living in central London then you are for all intents and purposes public enemy number one. Police statistics show that a decade after the Lawrence Inquiry black people in the UK are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2009). This is the environment in which the officers stopped Mark’s taxi on 4 August 2011, and this is the environment which prevails to this day.

Given Mark’s death contributed to the banks of civil unrest bursting across England two summers ago the verdict was naturally expected to draw a lot of attention. As Met Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley descended the steps outside the Royal Courts of Justice to justify the verdict focusing on ‘armed criminals’ he was met by a tempest of dissatisfaction and disgust. The police have continuously been unable to back up their allegations that Duggan was known to be violent and a member of a gang centred on drug dealing. It is important that we remember Duggan was a man with only a minor criminal record and the attempts to tarnish him posthumously are a further insult to his name. This verdict suits one party and one party only; the Met police, and there are those who will now feel that gunning down an unarmed black man by the police in London is de facto legalised. Given the recent Trayvon Martin case in the United States the ripple effect for black males in the supposedly ‘just’ west may last for generations to come.

The official ruling on Wednesday was that Mark had been lawfully killed but did not have a gun in his hand when confronted by officers. Clearly there is some ambiguity here but in essence this judgement means that the police shot an unarmed person and the law of the land has supported their doing so. 

Much like the death of Harry Stanley in 1999 the decision to shoot was not one based purely on perceived threat but on prejudice and fear. In that case the police were told that Stanley was an Irishman carrying a gun, when in fact he was a Scot carrying a table leg. This was at a time when fear of the IRA and by extension Irish men was still very much in the public consciousness. Errors like this would seem comical were they not so fatal. Initially the case was concluded with an open verdict yet under appeal Stanley’s family achieved a ruling of unlawful killing only to have it taken from them in a further review returning the decision to an open verdict. In the case of Mark Duggan politically motivated operations such as Trident stoked fears of gun crime and the spectre of young, armed, generally black men. These motivations and incidents do not exist in isolation from the wider narrative of crime and for this the media has a heavy price to pay.

The media response to the Duggan shooting has been at best insipid and at worst virulently racist. The Daily Mail referred to Duggan in 2011 as a ‘known offender’ and that he had ‘opened fire on the officers’. These are not only brash lies but acts of violence against a man’s name, a man who has young children and grieving loved ones. Today the Daily Mail used the same photo of Mark posing with his fingers like a pistol but they have since retracted their false allegations. Sky News and the Telegraph variously focused on the professionalism of the police and the much repeated idea that the officer who fired the fatal shot possessed an ‘honest belief’ that Duggan was armed. The Macpherson Report (1999) concluded that ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’ yet the police, the media, and the court seem unable to say what everyone within the black community and beyond think, Mark Duggan was shot because he was black. It may not have been the primary determinant in that officer firing his weapon but it certainly contributed to the harassment he and scores of other black males have faced in London and beyond for generations.

Let us include the name of Mark Duggan alongside those of Blair Peach, Dorothy Groce, Cynthia Jarrett, Ian Tomlinson, Azelle Rodney, Jean Charles de Menezes, Harry Stanley and many more who have died at the hands of the Metropolitan police. These individuals for varying reasons have been mistreated, murdered or forgotten and it is high time that accountability came to pass on a police force which sees itself as above the law and beyond justice.

When leaving court today one man shouted: ‘A black life ain’t worth nothing.’ and I am sure many fear that this sentiment will be felt across the black community for as long as Mark Duggan’s family fail to receive adequate justice. For this we should all be ashamed.

Bennetto, J. (2009) Police and Racism, Equality and Human Rights Commission
Daily Mail (2011) Pictured: The ‘gangsta’ gunman whose death sparked riots
Macpherson, W (1999) The Inquiry into the Matters Arising from the Death of Stephen Lawrence, Home Office,