Book Review: A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education

Book Review: A Companion to Wittgenstein on Education, edited by Michael A. Peters and Jeff Stickney

Singapore: Springer, 2017. ISBN 978-981-10-3136-6; ebook £143.50, hbk/pbk £179.99.

Reviewed by Christopher Winch, Kings’ College London

This is a monumental edited work which aims to show the relevance to education and the philosophy of education of Wittgenstein’s work over the whole period of his working life. It is a bold project in the sense that Wittgenstein was in no obvious sense a philosopher of education and rarely wrote on specifically educational questions. However, at different stages of his life he was a practising teacher in both primary schools and universities, and as the volume testifies, an unusually single-minded and dedicated one. He also reflected on and wrote extensively about the concept of learning, which was central to his discussion of logical issues and which is of course also a topic central to understanding education. Although the concept has not, perhaps, received the kind of intensive treatment that it deserves from philosophers of education, this volume goes some way towards remedying this lack.

Wittgenstein’s work is also extraordinarily fertile in the sense that those inspired by his way of approaching philosophical problems find that his attitude and methods are applicable in areas to which Wittgenstein himself had paid only limited attention. The philosophy of education is one such area, and this volume can be judged partly by the extent to which it extends Wittgensteinian insights, attitudes, and methods to the subject matter of that field. The issue is somewhat complicated by the fact that there are different schools of Wittgensteinian thought and that there is often a fractious relationship between some of them. This has sometimes had the unfortunate effect of putting off philosophers who might otherwise be interested in his work. Although generally catholic in its approach to the interpretation of Wittgenstein, this volume is not itself immune from a ‘school’ approach, relying more on the work of Stanley Cavell in explaining Wittgenstein’s thinking than is perhaps justified. It is arguable that Wittgenstein’s concern that language should not go on holiday is not always addressed in practice in some of the contributions.

The volume is organised into five parts. The first is an introductory essay by Jeff Stickney and Michael Peters. Part II is entitled ‘Biographical and Stylistic Investigations’. Part III is entitled ‘Wittgenstein in Dialogue with Other Thinkers’. Part IV is concerned with ‘Training, Learning and Education’, while Part V deals with ‘Religious and Moral Education.’


The companion has an interesting Foreword by David Bakhurst, a philosopher whose writings, including educational writings, have been deeply influenced by Wittgenstein. Bakhurst draws attention to the way in which Wittgenstein is not readily identified either with the scientistic, positivistic stance of much contemporary analytical philosophy nor with the ‘continental’ and post-structuralist traditions. Bakhurst nails his own colours to the mast of ‘second nature naturalism’ of the kind espoused by McDowell and draws attention to the Wittgensteinian provenance of this stance. Second nature naturalism pays particular attention to the ‘natural history’ of learning in human life and to reminding philosophers of the importance of detail in describing this, together with the implications that this anthropological approach has for our understanding of language, logic and mind. Bakhurst draws attention to the intense and concentrated nature of Wittgenstein’s prose and the difficulties that it often presents the reader. Wittgenstein did not develop a philosophical jargon and, although his writing is often dense and difficult, it is not because he writes in a deliberately obscure way, but because he found it difficult to express himself otherwise, particularly as he was concerned not to let his readers off the hook of thinking for themselves. Those philosophers tempted by thinking that wilful obscurity is a marker of profundity, including the ‘postmodern’ thinkers admired by some of the authors in this volume, should be able to learn otherwise through studying and applying Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophical challenges.

In reviewing such an ambitious volume it is impossible to do justice to all the ground that it covers. There are 50 contributions, excluding Bakhurst’s Foreword, written by authors with varying degrees of philosophical expertise and, consequently, as would be inevitable for a volume of this scope and ambition, they are widely different levels of quality. I will pass over in silence some of the weakest contributions and focus instead on what I consider to be the very best. In defence of the editor’s choices it can be said that they were concerned both to extend the range of topics covered by Wittgensteinian approaches and to introduce new scholars to the readership within the philosophy of education community. These are admirable aims and should not be lightly dismissed. There is undoubtedly scope for extensive use of Wittgenstein-inspired ideas in a wide range of topics in the philosophy of education. That said, lack of quantity of publication is not a problem that currently afflicts the field, but its reputation for quality in the wider philosophical world arguably is a problem that should not be lightly dismissed either. The contributors are all contemporaries and it is to be regretted that earlier generations of Wittgensteinian scholars who had written on educational topics are not included. I have in mind Rush Rhees, Ray Elliott, Roy Holland and David Hamlyn in particular.

Beth Savickey’s essay on ‘Wittgenstein’s Philosophy: Viva Voce’ is an insightful exploration of Wittgenstein’s own pedagogic principles, both as a primary school and as a university teacher. She draws attention to the philosopher’s place in the pedagogical reform movement and to the continuity between Wittgenstein as a school and university teacher, emphasising not only his seriousness of purpose but also his emphasis on pupil/student activity and the use of examples to develop understanding. Her contribution is also a useful corrective to the widespread view that Wittgenstein’s time as a primary school teacher was simply a failure. This essay can usefully be read in conjunction with Jeff Stickney’s contribution on ‘Wittgenstein as Educator’ which provides an account of Wittgenstein as an innovator in primary education, as well as a good explanation of what Wittgenstein meant by ‘training’ and rule-following, together with the roles that these concepts play in the later philosophy. Stickney is well aware of the pitfalls of a one-sided interpretation of the various German terms that are translated into English as ‘training’ and this is a very useful introduction to this topic.

The contribution by Michael Luntley, ‘Wittgenstein and the Path of Learning’, continues his individualistic reading of Wittgenstein on learning. This controversial view is developed with great flair and Luntley makes as good a case as can possibly be made for this position. However, there are problems with it. I will mention one. Luntley assumes that ‘training’ in the English translation of the Philosophical Investigations is a translation of the German abrichten, usually used to describe animal conditioning. Dictionary definitions reinforce this view. Luntley draws the conclusion that Wittgenstein means by this term ‘conditioning’ (p. 442), for which the term ‘training’ can also be used in English in certain contexts (e.g. horse dressage or dog training), and that therefore his emphasis on training in learning cannot be taken to support a social interpretation of learning. However, a look at the German from which ‘training’ is derived in the English translation indicates that it is not merely a translation of abrichten (see Philosophical Investigations para. 6 for example). Furthermore, Wittgenstein’s own use of ‘abrichten’ is considerably broader than that recommended in dictionary definitions, as can be seen for example in the Last Writings in the Philosophy of Psychology Volume 2, where Wittgenstein writes (using the verb abrichten in the original German): ‘Within a kind of training one can distinguish (further) kinds of training. And thus one can distinguish various uses within word-usage’ (Wittgenstein, 1994, para. 350).

Interpretation of Wittgenstein needs to involve close attention to the text and to its translation into English and to be prepared for the fact that Wittgenstein sometimes uses words in ways that deliberately extend their normal use in order to make a philosophical point by attempting to make connections between concepts that we often overlook in philosophical discussion.

David Simpson’s contribution on ‘Pedagogy and the Second Person’ is a welcome introduction to the importance of addressing a subject in a pedagogical context, which he suggests originates in Wittgenstein’s thinking. In the Philosophical Investigations the author emphasises the importance of addressing a learner through agreement, rejection, encouragement and expectation (para. 208), suggesting the highly personal way in which learning can take place and the close relationship between teacher and pupil that this entails. In learning, children become part of a community in which members address and are addressed by each other: ‘I cannot correct someone who does not recognize correction and you cannot become self-correcting until you place yourself in a normative space’ (p. 463). Simpson is right in thinking that paying more attention to the second person perspective in understanding learning will help us to appreciate better the necessarily social context of human learning and, I would add, will help us to understand pedagogical interactions more clearly, taking us beyond a purely individualistic view and also beyond one which tends to see the learner as an enigmatic object who needs to be shaped to the teacher’s purposes.

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock’s contribution on the relationship between Chomskyan linguistic theory and Wittgenstein’s approach to language focuses on the so-called ‘productivity problem’ raised by Chomsky. How is it that children learn the open-ended nature of language use when they are exposed to only limited ‘inputs’. She deftly points out the open-ended nature of many different training processes to show that this is a pseudo-problem and goes on to show how the natural history of human language learning, although it begins with the kind of interaction drawn attention to by Simpson, rapidly extends to an open-ended participation in the culture into which the child is brought up. Description of how this happens is also an explanation of the phenomenon. There is no need for a hidden mechanism to explain how we learn to use language.

The contribution by Mikel Burley on ‘Imagining Philosophy of Religion Differently: Interdisciplinary Wittgensteinian Approaches’ was for me the outstanding contribution in this volume. Burley combines philosophical insight on religious practices with penetrating observations on current practice in teaching about religion and uses telling examples from his own teaching to bring out these points. He makes illuminating connections between teaching about religion in schools and in higher education. Emphasising the diversity of what we think of as religious practices, he endorses an anthropological approach to this diversity that pays attention to the way in which concepts associated with religious practices actually work within the societies in which they are used. I will quote at length from Burley’s contribution.

One of the standard topics included in the syllabus is that of life after death or eternal life. This is commonly broached in philosophy of religion courses in terms of whether there are good reasons for believing that life after death is possible, but the logically prior question of what it means to speak of an afterlife – or of eternal life, resurrection, reincarnation and similar matters is routinely neglected. I aim to encourage students both to see that it is a mistake to overlook this logically prior question (or nexus of questions) and to be open to the possibility that there are many things that speaking of, and believing in, an afterlife might amount to (p. 723).

We should be prepared to take seriously how societies use concepts and to be careful in the ways in which we relate their talk to our talk. In particular, as Burley emphasises, we should look at the connections between different practices, including religious ones and seek to place them within their overall cultural context. We should be alive not just to the empirical investigation of conceptual use but also to the ramifying and connected nature of that conceptual use itself. Burley imaginatively takes up the lessons of Rush Rhees in ‘Wittgenstein’s Builders’ and, also acknowledging a debt to Dewi Phillips, David Cockburn, and Peter Winch, shows how religious education can be improved through the dialogic process of getting students to re-examine their own assumptions through the careful scrutiny of examples and connections between different aspects of human life. Burley’s article also nicely brings out the earlier points that Simpson made concerning the importance of the second person in pedagogy.

I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed reading Christopher Hoyt’s article on ‘Wittgenstein and Therapeutic Education’. This is a sensitive and perceptive exploration of some of the links between Wittgenstein’s personal preoccupations and one aspect of his philosophical method. Without giving a blanket endorsement of therapeutic educational methods Hoyt shows, by looking at the way in which Wittgenstein treats such concepts as grief and shame (and one could add joy and love), by close examination of the role that they play in our lives and the language that we use when we speak of them, that we can come to better understand those concepts and what they mean to us personally. He wants to wean us off a temptation to find the referent to such terms as ‘grief’ and ‘shame’ and the corresponding wish to find that referent to be something like a sensation. At the same time as getting clearer about what shame and grief are in human life we can gain a better understanding of the role that these play in our own lives. There is a strong tradition in the German-speaking countries of recognising the importance of self-knowledge as a means towards spiritual enlightenment, exemplified in such authors as Gottfried Keller, whose work Wittgenstein admired. Self-knowledge is a difficult but valuable goal of education and Hoyt’s chapter brings this out well.

I was left thinking that there really is value in exploring the links between Wittgenstein’s pedagogical practices, his philosophical method, and elements of his biography. In the best of the chapters in this collection there is some real illumination. In addition to the articles mentioned above I would also mention articles by Patrick Quinn on ‘The Learner as Teacher’ and by Thomas D. Carroll on ‘Clarifying Conversations: Understanding Cultural Difference in Philosophical Education’. No doubt other readers will find other articles than these illuminating, but in a volume of 50 contributions it is somewhat disappointing to find so few that are really inspiring. If there is to be a second edition the editors might consider reducing the number of articles to a couple of dozen of the very best and to consider including contributions by an earlier generation of Wittgenstein scholars.



Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophische Untersuchungen/Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953).

Wittgenstein, L. (1994) Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology Volume 2 1949-1951 (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell).