Wittgenstein:on Education

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    Michael James

    And at the end of all our explorations we shall arrive at the beginning and know the place for the first time”

    “Let us start at the end of the Philosophical journey, ladies, and gentlemen, with what some doomsday prophets would say is the end of Philosophy: the Philosophy of Wittgenstein. Some have called him the greatest of the philosophers of this century and he might have been prepared to wear this particular crown of thorns in his earlier work where his logical atomism relegated all value, all aesthetic, ethical and religious value from the world constituted of facts. In his later work, however, he has been humbled and offers us some pictures of a part of a landscape that he admits he will not be able to form into a complete philosophy. So let us begin. At the beginning of the Second World War, just after the death of Freud, Wittgenstein has this to say:

    “Why is the soul moved by idle thoughts—since they are after all idle? Well, it is just moved by them (How can the wind move a tree, since it is after all just wind? Well, it does move it and do not forget it.)”

    This is the philosophical idea of psychogenesis that Freud believed played a role in mental illness. Freud was one of the few Psychologists Wittgenstein would study, perhaps because both believed that surrounding the heart of our understanding was madness, the cure for which was therapy. And what greater madness can there be than war, ladies and gentlemen. War, for both these philosophers was the product of idle thoughts not engaging with the everyday life-world of the context of involvements, and the everyday understanding of language. War, is the product of a childish resistance that refuses to engage with others. Wittgenstein believed that no distress can be greater than that which a single person can suffer:

    “one human being can be in infinite distress and require infinite help”.

    This is why he was inclined toward the religious. Religion promised the possibility of infinite help if one kept ones part of the bargain and believed and opened ones heart to God in one’s distress and remorse. This may seem to some to be the result of a childish form of love but the child does approach others with an open heart, something that adults seem not to be capable of. Perhaps adults cut themselves off from each other because opening our hearts and minds will not reveal very attractive content. Perhaps we suffer from a form of blindness and cannot see another’s soul, perhaps there is no means of talking about the relation another person has to his soul. It is not easy to see what relation each soul has to its life as a whole or to its own death. When someone dies we do not see the anxiety, depression and remorse the individual felt characterized their life: we are conciliatory and round off the edges of his life in sympathy because we understand how difficult it is to live and understand ourselves. We need to understand that our motives are not always transparent and that sometimes we may believe that our motives for doing X are virtuous but after internal exploration we may well discover they are born from cowardice or indifference or greed. We need this childish open-hearted honesty if our narcissism is to be destroyed, for only then can religion, like the sea, seep into every nook and cranny of our personality. Wittgenstein did not subscribe to the mental illness model subscribed to by Freud and would have preferred a more neutral personality-change model. And no model can have more detrimental effects on an education system run by the state, than that of the mental disease model. The state has historically handled mental illness poorly. First by incarcerating thousands of women in state institutions, with no treatment at all in the late eighteen hundreds, and then by placing its faith in science and incarcerating patients indefinitely in institutions, administering medicines designed to remove the more uncomfortable symptoms such as hallucinations: and finally in desperation when that clearly failed, releasing schizophrenic patients to a fate of homelessness on the streets. But what model does run our current state-run educational systems? All the above measures seemed to aim at reducing suffering. This is, according to Wittgenstein, the aim of education too, which is, to reduce the capacity for suffering. Here is something he wrote in 1948:

    “Nowadays a school counts as good if the children have a Good time. And formerly that was not the yardstick. And parents would like children to become the way they themselves are (only more so) and yet they give them an education which is quite different from their own suffering really is out of date.”

    You may recognize the medical “Hippocratic” model of reducing suffering at the root of all state run activity. In this regard Wittgenstein points to the industry of Bach, one of my favorite composers, and points out the “logical” or “grammatical” relation of industry to humility and suffering. Bach could really listen to music with the ear of an exploring sufferer and produce it for the hands of suffering explorers too. I personally cannot hear what I hear in Bach in very much of our popular music. Bach in his music is like the tightrope walker who is so high up in our cultural heaven supported by almost nothing but a little thread which seems impossible to walk upon: and yet he is up there moving across the space of our cultural sky. It’s almost as if he has wings. This is why Bach’s music is religious music, ladies and gentlemen. When one reads the Bible one gets the same feeling from the way the language is used. It is used like music, coming from writers who suffer infinitely, moving across the heavens with the greatest of ease, as graceful and as purposeful as an angel: the words of Solomon, the words of Ecclesiastes may sometimes land to the sound of softly flapping angels wings, but mostly these words are like the swifts flying on their secret missions.
    And in 1949, a few years before his death, Wittgenstein points out that If Christianity is the truth about being in the world then all the philosophy about it is false. One year prior to his death he also remarks that if Gods essence is said to guarantee his existence, then this indicates that God’s existence, the philosophical question par excellence, is not the issue. What then is the issue? Suffering and how to live heroically yet humbly in the shadow of religion is Wittgenstein’s tentative answer. He claims that life led in the right way, with the right upbringing and experiences of suffering, can lead you to a belief in God or force the concept of God upon your thinking.

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