Back to School with Ludwig Wittgenstein

It’s September, which means those of us in school or teaching are back at school. In honor of those living the academic life, this month we’re writing about teachers and those influenced by them.

Today we’re writing about a philosopher who went back to school in an unexpected way.

After completing his masterpiece the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein decided to give it all up at age 30 and become an elementary school teacher in rural Austria.

Exactly why Wittgenstein chose this drastic life change has mystified Wittgenstein scholars and biographers. He didn’t just leave his life behind and move out to a mountain village, he also divested himself of his massive family fortune so that he needed to rely on his meager teacher’s salary to live.

Wittgenstein appears to have entered into this new profession with a dose of idealism. He tried to help these children think. And he expected the same rigor and independent thinking from the boys and girls in the class. He had very high expectations of these children. But Wittgenstein was teaching in a small mountain village, where the parents didn’t share his ambitions for their children. The villagers never trusted him, nor did he care for them. As he wrote his friend Bertrand Russell: “I know that human beings on the average are not worth much anywhere, but here they are much more good-for-nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere.”

Wittgenstein was also a tough disciplinarian, if that term can be applied to a teacher who would routinely strike children for failing to grasp the complex ideas he was trying to teach them. There was hair and ear pulling. And he hit one child so severely on the head that he collapsed unconscious, leading to a police investigation and a trial. Wittgenstein was acquitted, and while this type of corporal punishment wasn’t considered out of the norm in those days, the so-called “Haidbauer Incident” ended Wittgenstein’s career as an elementary school teacher.

The experience of teaching was ultimately distasteful, and Wittgenstein was more bitter for it. Six years after he left for rural Austria, he returned to the world of philosophy.

But although Wittgenstein resigned in disgrace and with a real loathing for the townspeople whose children he taught (and struck on the head), the experience did ultimately bring him back to his work in philosophy. And in the second half of his career, Wittgenstein was very much concerned with issues of pedagogy.

So those of you considering teaching – sure, the parents and students might drive you away in the end (especially if you beat them), but you’ll learn lessons from the experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.


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