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From Cognition to Being

Henry Davis McHenry

Part I. Epistemology

4. Wittgenstein’s inquiry into structure

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  • 1 “Speaking of Objects,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University P (...)
  • 2 On Certainty, §108.

We persist in breaking reality down somehow into a multiplicity of identifiable and discriminable objects... We talk so inveterately of objects that to say we do so seems almost to say nothing at all; for how else is there to talk?
But is there then no objective truth? Isn’t it true, or false, that someone has been on the moon? If we are thinking within our system, then it is certain that no-one has ever been on the moon. Not merely is nothing of the sort ever reported to us by reasonable people, but our whole system of physics forbids us to believe it. For this demands answers to the questions “How did he overcome the force of gravity?” “How could he live without an atmosphere?” and a thousand others which could not be an- swered.
—L. Wittgenstein2

1We have now looked through the window of representation, and have seen it as a window, on our way to developing our vocabulary of inventing into a powerful context for education. We have begun to distinguish between the window of representation, with its associated presuppositions about the structure of reality, and another window, which I have been looking through in moments of communion with Dustin and at other times. I have been talking about it as a window of inventing, or of giving being. If Davidson is right (in the epigraph to Chapter 1) that there is no such thing as a structured referential language to match a structured reality, then what are we teachers doing? Here is Wittgenstein’s bridge: what we are doing, he suggests, is languaging, engaging with each other in language-games, that is, in “forms of life.” “Languaging” is our activity in the realm of systems of values, semiological systems. Languaging is our activity—essentially social, arising out of and residing in our being together. What we ordinarily mean by “language”—grammar, syntax, lexicon—is the residue of languaging. The question of this chapter is: what is it to mean something by a word? What is there about languaging that is different from “using language,” or just plain “talking about something”? We are working on bringing about an extraordinary result: that we look through the window of inventing being with our students even as we look at what we call objects in the structure of reality.

2What is an object, for my four-year-old? On occasion, when we arrive at suppertime, our distinct paths of activity will have converged at the dinner table and, having caught the drift of this convergence a moment before, I will take matches out of the buffet drawer to light the candles, perhaps wistfully reminded of the days when, as a small child in my parents home, I would hear mother announce: “Light the candles and gather ’round!” On this occasion at our house, Dustin will say “Let me match the candles, Daddy!” Using “match” as both noun and verb, he infuses the name of the object/action with exuberant fascination. Once, when after supper he had duly snuffed the candles with an implement hardly less radiant in his eyes than the match, we told him that it was his chance to have a cookie, he replied: “And now it’s my chance to wash the dishes!” Perhaps his mother simply faded to teach him that doing the dishes is a chore. No doubt he will learn that soon enough. Or perhaps, in his harvest of the ever-new “objects” of awareness that present themselves every day, he has not yet learned to adapt himself to the language-game in whose terms dirty dishes mean chore. For him, in good moods at least, it seems that the language is a form of exuberance, its values to be appropriated and played like drums or flutes. Sometimes we get to see that an object, for him, is a chance, an opportunity.

3Before we begin to listen our way through Wittgenstein’s inquiry into our adult ways of using language—“processing,” we cybernauts might call it—let us return briefly to the pedagogical import. For Wittgenstein, even in the midst of what he calls “doing philosophy,” brings us face to face with the possibility of applying it—of doing real life. Wittgenstein’s talk of space flight is obviously dated, but this contributes to rather than diminishes its resonance for today’s teachers. For, considering “objective truth” in the context of a moon visit, he proposes an example of everyday interaction with children.

  • 3 On Certainty, §106.

Suppose some adult had told a child that he had been on the moon. The child tells me the story, and I say it was only a joke, the man hadn’t been on the moon; no one has ever been on the moon; the moon is a long way off and it is impossible to climb up there or fly there.—If now the child insists, saying perhaps there is a way of getting there which I don’t know, etc., what reply could I make to him? What reply could I make to the adults of a tribe who believe that people sometimes go to the moon (perhaps that is how they interpret their dreams), and who indeed grant that there are no ordinary means of climbing up to it or flying there?—But a child will not ordinarily stick to such a belief and will soon be convinced by what we tell him seriously.3

4Isn’t this a familiar scenario? Don’t students often seem to be members of a tribe with a different mythos than ours? Aren’t we in the position, always, of trying to get students to latch onto our stories of the way things are, to buy into our interpretations, our myths? To be sure, if the gentle subtleties of shared mythos fail, we resort to sterner persuasions. But why study anything—why teach it?—unless the study fits, serves to support a system of world in which the student, because of his study and our teaching, owns membership? Are they ordinarily convinced by what we tell them seriously? Are they convinced by the objective reality of it, or by something in the way we tell it? What is it to tell them “seriously”? What could keep the child, or the tribesman, stubborn in his contrary story? What in our being together would let him be convinced by ours? With these questions in the background, we return to the philosophical story.

5True to the problem implied by Descartes’ disjunction of mental and physical, Wittgenstein’s first major work (his dissertation, in fact), weightily titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, sets out to represent the foundations on which language can give an accurate account of reality. The axle of his thinking here is the copy theory of language, the notion that what words and propositions do is to compose a picture that corresponds exactly with objects and events outside language and outside the self—a picture that mirrors them perfectly. Wittgenstein in the Tractatus was trying like Descartes to “see the world aright”; like Locke, to see it steadily and see it whole. In this early view, the world has a stable structure, and the goal of philosophy is to discover and then describe it. The project of the Tractatus, then, is to discover the structure of propositions that must correspond to the structure of things in the world. At the outset, Wittgenstein announces: “The general form of propositions is: ‘This is how things are.’” Once we see the way of things, that is, we can utter statements that express that way of things, definitively.

6Having written the Tractatus, Wittgenstein spent six years teaching elementary school in small towns in the Austrian hills. While he found some success with the more able of his pupils, these were not, on the whole, good years for Wittgenstein. It appeared that he had set his sights impossibly high for the cultural milieu in which he was teaching. Now, post hoc is not propter hoc. But it was after his experience of teaching living students that his way of looking at the phenomena shifted away from that undergirding concern with fixed structure. In his next work, Philosophical Investigations, regarded by many philosophers (and a few educators) as the most important work of contemporary philosophy, he used the views in the Tractatus like rungs of a ladder on which he could climb up over a high wall to see into a new country. And this meant getting out from behind an old way of speaking. As historian of philosophy James Edwards puts it:

  • 4 James Edwards, The Authority of Language (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990), 140.

In Wittgenstein’s [later] view, the sort of comprehensive understanding aimed at by philosophy takes a particular form and has a particular (usually hidden) motivation. Its form is theoretical representation. For the philosopher, to understand is to be able to depict metaphysically. It is to be able to fix the “object” of one’s understanding in some medium of abstract and impersonal representation. It is to be able to say what that “object” truly is...4

  • 5 Tractatus, 6.54.

7In using the method of metaphysical representation, Wittgenstein had been hoping, like Descartes, to “see the world aright,”5 to assume the position of an independent, isolated consciousness, surveying the world from its study and issuing reliable reports. Like Locke, he had been swept up in the attempt to discover the way of things, to find out by experiment how their simple determinate constituents fit together in a complex world designed by God before we got to it. He had been held captive, he noticed, by a particular view: that there are true pictures of reality. That is, he had assumed as basic a particular sort of relation between saying and being: a relation named representation, with its associated picture of the world as made up of structures of objects and corresponding structures of ideas. A fact is a correspondence of structures. No one had been on the moon, and the impossibility of space travel seemed equally factual, as firmly ensconced in the structure of reality as the current fact that space flight is not only possible but routine. The point is this: the particular view of reality is ensconced in a vocabulary. When we talk of “saying what an object truly is,” no less than when we talk of space travel within our particular historical situatedness, we are, willy-nilly, swimming in a sea of interrelated assumptions and propositions and conclusions.

  • 6 Philosophical Investigations, §109.

8It is not only that a proposition false at an earlier time may become true at a later time, or that discoveries and advances do in fact occur. Of course that is so, and it leaves intact the presumption that there is a structured objective reality to which our ideas must conform. But what Wittgenstein had noticed is that it is not just an imputed structure of reality that has power in our thinking and belief. The function of our language systems, the ways we talk—what he calls our “language-games”—also have power to determine what appears as real for us. “Philosophy,” he now says, “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”6 Between reality and the judgments wrought into the weave of our language the relationship is more like mutual conditioning than like one-way determination.

9This point will bear some elucidation. For that one-way relationship, from structured object to approximative representation, is still part of our inherited cultural system; it is natural and unremarkable for us to think in its terms. Because we remain, at least in our intellectual work, children of the Enlightenment, thinking in terms of object and representation is just plain common sense, like breathing. Observer, object observed, and description go together like lungs, air, and diaphragm. Thus, to the extent that our presumptive vocabulary is Lockean, our talk breaks reality down into subjects, objects, and descriptions (or builds it up from these components); and we adapt everything we hear or see or notice to the pattern of that way of talking which embodies our common sense. Having begun already to listen to our breathing, in what follows we shall continue to bring it up out of the background, where it is inaudible, so we can be aware of it. You will have noticed that I am shifting gradually from a visual to an aural metaphor, from talk of pictures to talk of listening (and even to think of the analogous plural, listenings: if ways of seeing give us pictures, surely ways of listening may influence our awareness). My word “elucidation” above, of course, is picture talk; and we are still “looking at” philosophical ideas. But now, alert for the faint rustling of a vocabulary that may enable a new way of being with students, like an animal sensing danger or prey, we have begun to hear the way our being might be attuned to a possibility.

10(At first I wrote this last sentence as follows: “But now, like the Victrola dog, we have begun to hear the way our being might be mastered by an idea, our vision of possibilities limited by our reasonable systems of physics.” What is the difference between these two versions? Where does each leave you? Does it matter which version I speak?)

  • 7 I and Thou, trans. Kaufman, 64.

11So first to the common-sense “view,” the picture called representation. For something to be re-presented, to be made available again as certain, factual, objective truth, it has to persist in some way, to have the same appearance in later encounters as in earlier ones. It has to be a single, recognizable thing, re-cognizable from one moment to the next. This is what it is to have a structure. “Objects consist in having been,” Buber says.7 The dictionary says structure is “the mutual relation of the constituent parts or elements of a whole as determining its peculiar nature or character.” So the vocabulary of structure fits with and interarticulates the vocabulary of “nature,” “character,” “essence.” Things, as objects, have essences. To that structure-talk we might add more: that which has structure is that which exhibits a peculiar nature or character at every inspection. A structure is a relationship between parts comprising a whole, and to re-present a structure is to affirm the unchangingness of this relationship. Thinking back to Locke, we might reflect: A structure is the hand that fits the glove of one of Locke’s determined or determinate ideas. It is almost the definition of structure that you can represent it, present it again, present it again.

12Talking of structure, dwelling in representation, we may say that a carburetor joins fuel jets, a venturi barrel, a float bowl for the fuel, and whatever else a carburetor needs to work. We may also say that a student has this or that characteristic, that his personality, or perhaps his actions, are so structured: we can predict that they will behave in this or that way, perceive things in this or that way. “All that kid wants to do is party!” We try to discover his or her attributes, those perduring qualities that make him who he is and cause him to behave as he does. “I see two possibilities: either she’s very stupid or she’s not doing any work.” Or there may be apparently obvious reasons for a lapse of effort: “She’s always with the bad kids, smoking like a steam engine—she hangs out with the wrong crowd.” It may come to look as if a student has parts like a carburetor. He has a particular learning style, we may say, or perhaps a learning disability, or an overwhelming susceptibility to peer pressure. A venturi is an essential part of the structure of a carburetor; ineffective work in school is an inevitable consequence of laziness; laziness is like a learning disability. So we say. Only it is easier to fix a carburetor.

13As you may have guessed, I am an amateur mechanic. Like Dustin, I love to take things apart and find out how they work. Unlike him, if I can’t figure something out, I am totally stopped, stumped. What he does when he doesn’t know what’s what—which is much of the time, of course; he’s five years old—is to invent a game to play. He never wastes time being stumped. He’s busy inventing structures of meaning, inventing facts, building flashlights and catapults and anything. It may sound like he is merely oblivious to reality—sometimes, exasperatingly, he is—but most of the time, in the midst of his inventing, he is splendidly alert, on the lookout for the real design, the way things really do work. Tonight he was going to make a little fire in the yard out of leaves and sticks, in order, he said, to burn up the aluminum cans we had collected in our recycling box under the kitchen table. He had patiently fished the cans out, separating them from the bottles and loading them into a plastic bag to carry them all out to the visionary fire. When I informed him the cans wouldn’t burn he replied, cheerily and plaintively at the same time: “I’m just gonna try it!” At that moment, what I heard him saying was: “I know you’re probably right, Dad; but here I’ve designed this experiment, and done some work to bring it off, and I’ve got my sights set on doing it now, and won’t you please let me?” Was it important at that moment that I already knew cans wouldn’t burn? I was my adult self, appraising and appreciating his childlike enthusiasm, and I was with him, sharing his spirit, his alertness, his adventure. We had become together in his re-inventing of the world.

14For adults in the culture of representation, you could say that structure is a tool, it saves effort. Because I know that, in the structure of “things as they exist,” cans are not combustible, I don’t have to find out every time whether cans will burn. (But then, I don’t get to find out every time, either.) Or you could say that representation and structure presuppose each other, or that the terminology of structure fits together with our inclination toward representation, that they work in tandem, like a horse and plow. That is to say that one of the furrows we find opened to us in the culture of representation is investigating and specifying ever more precisely the structure of things. And this is to say that one of the ways we are given for dealing with our students makes salient for us a particular concern, prescribes one predominant job: we are to reveal and report on structure as the overriding concern of being together. The structure of their present knowledge, the structure of the lesson plans that must fit onto and expand it, the structure of concepts in a given subject area, the consistency of a student’s inabilities across several subject areas, the way (so strong is our need for a single generalization) he or she uses her time... And do we feel we have to discover the truth about these structures of meaning, to get them all sorted out, to be right about our diagnoses and prescriptions, as we are right about the non-combustibility of aluminum cans?

15This way of being that we are given, thrown into by the dominant cultural conversation, is built from Descartes’ distinction between subject and object, as Locke codified and hardened it; and as Buber would say, our interactions with objects will be little different when the object is a He or a She: one of our students. The job of the teacher as Subject is to get things right—which means, in the lesson, to bring fitting concepts and information together, to choose material of “high interest” for the students taught, to emphasize sequence and cumulation so that logical relations between facts and ideas stand out, to discover those core concepts or skills or facts that the students most need to know... From your own experience, can you add to the list of structure-bearing, structure-laden activities? Has it been your experience, too, that sometimes you just cannot get the students to pay attention to the structure inherent in these, that the structure is lost on them? Is Locke’s confrontation—between Subjects and Objects—where they live?

16Given the outcry about the failure of schools to produce the results needed by our society, to train children for what are conceived to be the basic social, civic, and most crucially economic functions, television and newspapers have devoted more and more “coverage” to educational issues, the problems and solutions. Here is a recent example, headlined “Unlocking Your Child’s Academic Potential”:

Your child may obtain high achievement scores, yet he has poor grades; or he may be a B student, but his teachers feel he is capable of more. There are several reasons why a child may not be working to potential, but the two most common are:

1. He does not have adequate study skills such as time management, using resources, taking notes, listening skills, how to prepare for and take tests; how to read a textbook (this is different than just looking up answers), and problem solving; or

2. He does not have strong basic skills in vocabulary, reading comprehension, math, or English.

17With the headline, we are already emprisoned in an epistemology. What locks up the child’s “potential” is that he lacks skills of two kinds; what will unlock it, presumably, is giving him those skills. His education, his educability, are matters of what he as an individual has or does not have. In the epistemology that gives this diagnosis, which certifies it, makes it plausible, the student is an isolated individual, a subject whose job it is to cognize objects, a receptacle for structures of meaning and processes of internalizing and manipulating them. Skill is manipulation of “resources” for the purpose of mastering subject-matter content represented structures of meaning. (This is why the notion of “social skills” is so odious. Do you find it possible to be authentic in a conversation with another who is exercising social skills, thereby making you into a representation of a person—a structure of attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and what not? How does one feel about skilled laughter?) With skill as the background of our interactions with students, we are in a world where the goals are achievement test scores, grades, “command” of subjects, manipulation of material and of time with other people. Without another context to enfold this one, it is a deadly world.

18Our word “skill” comes from Old Norse skil, meaning distinction or difference, the power of discernment or discrimination, and from a verb skilja, to divide or distinguish. I wonder if the world of “skill” used to be a world of languaging, of creating distinctions, making and using articulations. In early uses, the word associates the human with divinity: man’s shape is fashioned in the image of the divine.

1380: He made skylful creaturis as angelys and man.

1440: A skylfull beeste than will y make, after my shappe and my liknesse.

  • 8 Professor Hoyt Duggan informs me that in the societies of Old and Middle English, people were not (...)

19But the divinity of the image is conceived as the power or ability to give shape, to fashion. As intelligent artificer, man is allied with divinity. Skill, then, implies responsibility for a creation.8 Some of the early uses of the word do seem to have this resonance, the echo of responsibility, though the sense of purposeful, creative articulation integral with that sense of responsibility is almost dissolved in the sense of skill as knowledge or mastery of an already defined situation, an already given reality.

1587: Of men themselves, the skilfullest make Lawes, & take upon them to rule others.

1606: The Greeks are strong, and skilful to their strength.

1631: Choice persons are instructed... wisely to encampe and skilfully to embattaile.

20As we think of it today, skill is evinced in timely response, the careful management of given situations according to learned pattern. The prominent definitions in Webster’s relate to proficiency in the handling of machinery to produce a product. “Skilled: of workmen or labor, having or requiring such training in one occupation as would involve industrial loss in transference to other occupations.” Skill in this sense may rely on the kind of repetitive training used in mastering industrial processes, and would not be available outside those processes. It is a matter of the instruction of “choice persons.”

21But if the predominant sense nowadays leans into the vocabulary of a mass production economy, in the earlier uses the response to stimulus, to given situation, comes as the manifestation of an inventive, spur-of-the-moment improvisation. It is educed in choice persons:

1338: At conseil & at nede he was a skilfulle kyng.

1387: He was nevere so wroth with man that he would not forgeve if he seigh [saw] skilful occasioun.

1561: The experte skylfullnesse of so excellent a Pilot.

22To improvise, as an expert, is to see occasions skillfully, to apply one’s knowledge but also to adapt it, to re-invent it so that it works in particular cases as they develop in ways never before encountered. Twain’s portrayal of the riverboat pilot (see Life on the Mississippi) gives us skill in this latter sense.

23So we have trained response, which is mastery of pattern, and invented response, which is the poetry of pattern. The now archaic use of the word as a verb would once have resonated with a different sense of our responsibility than obtains in the current cultural conversation:

1300: Wel sal he cun knau quilk es quilk, fra the wick the god to skil. (Well should he know how to know which is which, from the wicked the good to skill.)

24“To skill” is not only to know what’s what. It is to invent what’s what, creating an articulation in and of environmental circumstances. To skill you must have the power of distinction at your disposal. Skill not only depends on represented, structured knowledge, but, as Webster’s also says, manifests a “union of knowledge and readiness.” Where does the readiness come from? What is readiness? How does the choice person know how to know?

25Yes, I have purposes, intentions, even a structured knowledge base and some facility at using it. But I don’t have these as an individual. I have them only in the older sense of skill: in readiness to be with others in a world. I mean something by a word only in speaking with another. Skillfully, we invent articulation together.

1675: We could skil to modify also the Air about them.

1869: Could he skill to make it seen as he saw?

26Readiness, here, is relatedness. As a matter of “we-work,” of convention (con + venire), skill entails letting a world appear in colloquy.

27In the world of “unlocking the child’s academic potential,” though, how are deficiencies in the skill of the isolated subject to be corrected? By more isolation, stronger manipulation, by him and of him; in a word, by better structures:

For high school students who have never had a structured study plan, try a simple, common sense plan. The only way the plan will not help is if they do not try the following suggestions:

1. Mandatory study time for the high school student is two hours a day. Each student should work on homework, read chapter assignment, review notes from the day’s class, study for upcoming tests, and look at short and long term assignments. If your son says that he does not have any homework—or he did it at school—the mandatory homework time is still required (no TV, telephone, etc.). Study time is a priority. Be structured and consistent.

2. Check out your school’s extra help. If your son’s school offers after school study skills instruction, enroll him. Let him know through actions (not words and endless discussions) that his academic success is a priority with you.

3. Communicate with his teachers, and find our why your son is not working to potential (homework, classwork, tests?). Identify the specific problem and work with his teachers to implement a plan.

  • 9 My source here requests anonymity.

4. Praise and reward positive results. The majority of children want to do well. If nothing else, “doing better” keeps us parents off their backs! Make sure goals are set in small sections of time. Please do not set six week goals; set weekly goals, and reward and praise those successes.9

  • 10 In Handbook of Applied Behavior Analysis: Social and Instructional Processes, Thomas A. Brigham an (...)

28Several things might be said about this. The first is that it might be good advice, in certain cases. When Dustin is recalcitrant about schoolwork, I will myself very likely adopt at least part of it. But what is the context in which the advice can be effective? Its behaviorist orientation prescribes stimulus-response conditioning, structured to produce automatic responses rather than choices.10 Even if a particular “underperforming” child does want to do well, we might ask whether conditioning will contribute to his embracing learning as a possibility for continuing to realize his freedom—that is, for managing his responsibility.

29The conditioning associated here with cognitive representation of structures works reactively, retroactively, if it works at all. It envisions our reaction to behaviors, to “results,” rather than our contribution to generating behaviors, to sourcing results. If the child remembers the reward (or punishment) from last time, and reacts accordingly, his behavior must always be driven and enforced by the past, rather than by a possibility chosen by himself.

30Indeed, from the praise and reward, from the fact that his parents are communicating with his teachers, even from the unequivocal action of enrolling him in an extra help program, what the student may get is the parent’s commitment to possibility in his life. But this result would be at odds with the paradigm of structure and representation (of subject/object, cognitive epistemology) that prescribes the actions. What the student may just as easily get from these well-intentioned and perhaps effective remedies is more evidence that she is under the compulsions of structure. If the suggestions work to enable education, in the sense we are working toward, the enabling context comes from somewhere else.

31It is not that parents and teachers should not punish, much less that we should not reward successes. It is not that human beings are not animals; of course we respond to conditioning. As one successful coach says, the pat on the back must sometimes be a little harder and a little lower. And it is not that the suggested structures, the recommended consistency, are not practical; of course they are eminently practical, given the reality into which they fit and on which they work. But which future shall we create for ourselves: one that is automatically and by necessity an extension of the past, or one that enables our responsibility? In what paradigm, what context, could we choose a past excellence, choose to “do well,” as an expression of freedom rather than conditioned response or avoidance of subjugation? What are we building? Structure and consistency are valuable in a context, and educators need to be awake to the contexts, the spaces in which they and their techniques operate.

Emphasize to your son that you have a plan; and that the plan will help him improve his grades and maximize his recreational potential. (By learning good study skills he will have better grades, allowing him to participate in more extracurricular activities, and have more recreational time.) That is one potential he will be glad to hear about.

  • 11 In Krapp’s Last Tape, as the protagonist struggles to rearrange and catalogue the memories of his (...)

32What picture of education emerges? We are watching a movie here, with a particular theme, one which leaves us in a very strongly defined space. What system, what semiology, connects the values “grades,” “extracurricular activities,” “academic potential,” and “recreational time”? How are these values connected to the value “learning”? What listening does the speaking here depend on and perpetuate?11

33Having noticed this dependence and this perpetuation—the mutual conditioning of reality, speaking, and listening, the interdependence between the content of experience and its social context—Wittgenstein pulls back the corner of the projection screen, as it were, so we can look into the blank, dark space behind it, to see that our insistent looking for meaning as structure entails demands for a pedagogy of procedure, teaching content by algorithm. The picture holding us captive fetters our attention to what we write on the blackboard or in our class notes. And it projects the students as receivers, who either participate by receiving or don’t participate. This one is too dreamy, or sleepy, or dumb, to get the presentation; this one is so far ahead that he’s bored; this one has attention deficit disorder; these two are bragging about that escapade last night instead of paying attention... Do you hear the conversation about these students in the teachers’ lounge? The picture has made them into ciphers, caricatures; though every description be true, every complaint apt, yet, seen from the point of view of the teacher’s presumed purpose—to communicate information, to transmit knowledge—the students have one dimension. Either they receive it, through varying degrees of noise in the transmission channel, or they don’t. In the faculty meeting or the classroom, while we are immersed in the algorithm that this picture seems to demand, we may no longer be with the real students before us. Already, then, we are not in a felicitous condition for communicating knowledge, let alone for educating. Our next steps follow along as Wittgenstein explores the space behind that screen on which flickers the picture of structure and representation.

34In Philosophical Investigations, he begins the exploration by describing our shared language with a simile, perhaps peculiarly European in its flavor, like a painting of a medieval town center surrounded by more recent suburbs:

  • 12 Philosophical Investigations, §18.

Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses and of houses with additions from various periods: and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.12

35The ancient-city image gives a picture of language as a structure, but it is a particular kind of structure: one that comprises a wide range of different kinds of pattern, one built up according to different sets of rules that apply differently at different times. There are in language, Wittgenstein says, a variety of regularities, a variety of kinds of use of words. What he is doing here is calling into question the fundamental assumption that rules govern our experience from the outside, as it were, as if there had been written down somewhere the master plan for centuries of growth of a town. As part of his questioning, he asks “How many kinds of sentence are there?”, and answers:

  • 13 Philosophical Investigations, §23.

There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call “symbols”, “words”, “sentences”. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.13

36Now if that is the case—if there is no single fixed set of rules at the bottom, no deep grammar that generates the structure of the language—then what does generate it? Where does language come from? What could he mean by “language games”? And more pragmatically, what becomes of the teaching of, say, grammar—those more or less fixed rules from the Harbrace handbook? As teachers, what are we supposed to see in this picture? What are we supposed to do? For it seems to pull the floor right out from under us, by suggesting that there is no “way of things” out there from which the ultimate rules of reality are supposed to be derived. Wittgenstein’s picture would seem to lead away from the cozy familiarity of accepted, standardized structures of meaning toward a blooming, buzzing, bloody confusion in which no meanings could be depended on as stable, and consequently teaching and learning would be useless. If there is no immutable structure behind or above us, what can we depend on? If we do not live in a single representable world any more, but in multiple, perhaps incommensurate language-games, then what do we teach for?

37Wittgenstein does not give us something else to depend on. Instead he provides us with the opportunity to get behind this insistent question, to hear its insistence, and to notice that its nagging comes out of a particular picture of the world. Our insistent looking for meaning as structure entails these demands for technique, for rules of procedure. What are we to look for, then, if looking for structure creates this bind? Let us start, Wittgenstein suggests, by looking at the ways in which meanings are taught to young people. Here, then, we begin to examine further the idea we first glimpsed in re-reading Descartes, that non-common-sense “view” in which the relation between language, languaging, and reality is something like “enarticulation” rather than one-way determination.

38Even though he taught for those six years, Wittgenstein’s work is not primarily devoted to pedagogy, but to inquiry into how language works, and what languaging is. As a philosopher, after the Tractatus, he never gets himself into the structure-trap of looking for the “DNA,” the code that governs learning and growth. As there is no core definition of the essence of a sentence, nor a set of rules for generating kinds of sentence, neither is there an essential feature of learning situations. Though it falls easily off our tongue, “the learning environment” is a misleading phrase, suggesting a singular and repeatable pattern of events or activities—something that has a structure to it. And while in his portrait of the acquisition of language Wittgenstein does describe what might look like a general feature of a learning situation, the description is not neat:

How do I explain the meaning of “regular”, “uniform”, “same” to anyone?—I shall explain these words to someone who, say, only speaks French by means of the corresponding French words. But if a person has not yet got the concepts, I shall teach him to use the words by means of examples and by practice.—And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself.

  • 14 Philosophical Investigations, §208.

In the course of this teaching I shall shew him the same colours, the same shapes, I shall make him find them and produce them, and so on. I shall, for instance, get him to continue an ornamental pattern uniformly when told to do so.—And also to continue progressions. And so, for example, when given: . .. … to go on: .... ..... ...... . I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on.14

39He is talking about one characteristic situation among many non-identical others, and accordingly uses phrases like “and so on,” “and also,” “for instance,” and “for example.” In the situation described, a young child may be gathering new concepts, and this is not purely an intellectual transaction. Instead it includes several different kinds of interaction, including bodily guidance, and results in an expanded repertoire of actions. The pupil is not learning to represent the structure of things accurately; he is participating in action with others, moment by moment. In this picture, then, teaching is influencing action.

40Wittgenstein seems to sidestep the issue of how it is that we recognize a color or a length or a shape as “the same” as another. Indeed, it is as if, in describing the child’s learning, he thinks of the similarity between patterns, the structures we apprehend, as the result of the being together of teacher and student, not as something given beforehand:

How can he know how he is to continue a pattern by himself—whatever instruction you give him?—“Well, how do I know?”—If that means “Have I reasons?” the answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reasons.

  • 15 Philosophical Investsigations, §211 and 212.

When someone whom I am afraid of orders me to continue the series, I act quickly, with perfect certainty, and the lack of reasons does not trouble me.15

  • 16 In his Austrian hill towns, Wittgenstein himself was not so constrained. To spur his recalcitrant (...)
  • 17 Of course, John Dewey made a similar point in work after work. For a précis of his contribution se (...)

41Now, in Wittgenstein’s classroom, we are not going to teach our hapless pupils by frightening them!16 That is not his point. What he means is that the being together of teacher and learner is not merely the setting or background. Learning does not take place against this background as a separate process of responding to structures of meaning. In the manifestation of skill, readiness comes from relatedness. Learning occurs, in Wittgenstein’s later view, in a matrix of sociality—within the restrictions and possibilities alive in the moment of being together.17 It is a maternal moment, one that brings forth. Certainly every child’s biological development is controlled by the DNA of its parents—at least, so we say now. But in what wombs do we develop after birth? In our human need for tools, our reliance on the system of language as we inherit it, we may not see that the structured world, the world the tools fit and help us to manipulate, may depend for its sustenance on another, more encompassing womb: being-in-a-world-together-and-speaking. With Wittgenstein, and with Dustin, we are trying to flesh out this other womb and to distinguish it from the one that bears current educational theory and practice.

42In another section of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein is discussing what it means to teach (and to learn) the concept of “talking to oneself.”

  • 18 Philosophical Investigations, §361 and 362.

What is it like to say something to oneself; what happens here? How am I to explain it? Well, only as you might teach someone the meaning of the expression “to say something to oneself.” And certainly we learn the meaning of that as children.—Only no one is going to say that the person who teaches it to us tells us “what takes place”. Rather it seems as though in this case the instructor imparted the meaning to the pupil—without telling him it directly; but in the end the pupil is brought to the point of giving himself the correct ostensive definition. And this is where our illusion is.18

43Our illusion is that the definition of a concept comes ultimately and most importantly out of the structure of the world, the solid, stubborn “thingness” of it—which we call its nature. So then teaching should consist of conveying structured information to students in an order determined by purely logical considerations. But though presumably you cannot teach algebra before you teach arithmetic, Wittgenstein has this reminder for anyone who insists that structure is the ultimate hard rock of the world:

  • 19 Philosophical Investigations, §114.

One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.19

44The social matrix gets lost, the fact that it is we who are looking, through a frame of our own. Is it true that 12 x 12 = 221? At first glance, of course not. It is easy to forget that the normal base-ten system is a matter of social agreement. In base three, 12 x 12 = 221. Thinking about the world in concepts, we do not see that there is already framing at work behind concepts and their logic. Their usefulness derives from a social contract—though “contract” is the wrong word, since it implies voluntary, conscious assent. Saussure would say that this framework is social “agreement”; Wittgenstein suggests that it comes from social behavior: being together. Thus a teacher “imparts” meaning, without telling it directly, by being in certain ways; she brings the student to the point of what we call understanding by guiding his hand, by showing approval and rejection in facial, bodily, and verbal expressions, by repeating or otherwise emphasizing important cues, and so on. Now the question is: if neither structure in the world nor the structure of knowledge can give the teacher what we could describe as teaching procedures—what she does and is in the encounter with students—what does give those procedures? Are they “procedures"? Or do they just occur as they do for some other reason than conscious decision or training? If we lived in a different space, how would we influence?

45In another collection of paragraphs, assembled at the end of his life and called On Certainty, Wittgenstein carries on the exploration of a possible new space by asking a question implied earlier: what is it to be right? What does it mean to say we are certain of knowledge, or certain of anything? Of course I can be sure whether or not I have personally been in outer space—but what is it that makes that a matter of course? Why would any normal person be thought daft who denied the perfect authority of his own actual experience here? Wittgenstein asks, whimsically:

  • 20 On Certainty, §102.

Might I not believe that once, without knowing it, perhaps in a state of unconsciousness, I was taken far away from the earth—that other people even know this, but do not mention it to me?20

46Actually, that sounds less whimsical today than it did forty years ago, given the changes that have occurred in what is possible. Can we use Wittgenstein’s exploration to get a handle on the ways in which possibility may change? Can we create with our students new possibilities to live into together, ways in which knowing a structure of facts occurs almost as the by-product of our being together in the class?

47So back to Wittgenstein’s argument. To assert the perfect authority of your own actual personal experience—as Descartes had apparently done for us Westerners—you have to have some assumptions, some judgments in the background that you hold as certainties. Our judgments of certainty—such as the assumption that you could not possibly have been unconscious while travelling in space, and that even if you had been, someone would have told you about it—these are like anchors, helping us to hold our position in the water. Better, they are like the centerboard that keeps the sailboat from wallowing to and fro at the mercy of the wind and waves, and thus allows it to sail constantly in a desired direction. Varying the position and tautness of the sails works to alter speed and direction only if the centerboard remains fixed in place. As we cannot walk without ground to stand on, we cannot sail without a centerboard for the boat to lean on. Certain propositions, our most basic judgments, hold fast for us in order that we may agree or disagree about others, arguing toward the fulfillment of some purpose.

48The combination of sails, centerboard, wind, and rudder forms a system, says Wittgenstein, echoing Saussure’s term, and echoing also, in his example of the moon-walk, Saussure’s insistence on the sociality of systems. We use systems to accomplish things of interest and concern to us—not just physical systems like rifles and cartridges, but language-systems as well. As the rifle must be braced against the shoulder—for the shoulder too is part of the rifle-system—so in our investigations and our ordinary dealings there must be some bracing propositions that stand still for us—some truths beyond question, some facts, undisputed if not indisputable. But these facts are not there independent of the system they stabilize. A centerboard detached from a sailboat is useless for sailing; only in our sailing does its value as a centerboard arise. In trenchant examination of our purposeful agreements, our social judgments of certainty, here is Wittgenstein:

  • 21 On Certainty, §132.

Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience. Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio are the means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture.21

49Atomic structure, molecular structure, social structure, the structuring of gravity and of electromagnetic radiation, the economic structure, the structure of knowledge—are all these, too, judgments? Are they superstitions? Are they ways of speaking, languaging?

50Such a question yanks up the centerboard. And in the ensuing loss of control, without the ability to direct our activity in the accustomed way, it is hard to see that it is not the centerboard that has lost its function but the entire system. “Just lower the board again!” we cry. Why would Wittgenstein, having himself taught in school, suddenly raise the centerboard in the middle of a close haul? Why should we follow him, especially during a race in which we seem to be falling farther and farther behind?

  • 22 This is what Hobie Cat did a decade ago.

51Raising the centerboard, noticing our assumed certainties—for instance, the certainty that structured knowledge is the goal of education—this may raise to our attention the whole system with which we operate. We may indeed find that we were falling behind because there were barnacles on the centerboard. Sailing is a splendid system, one of the marvels of human invention, and as long as we are committed to a sailing race, the system we have been using may need only to be streamlined. But if we look with Wittgenstein, we may discover in the raised board the possibility of a different system altogether, one that serves to fulfill a different commitment What if we change the traditional rounded shape of the hull so that the sides are vertical below the water?22 Then we might be able to sail straight without a centerboard, in shallow water now as well as deep. No less than the possibility of surf sailing, the possibility of space flight arises only when we have two things available: first, a commitment to a new goal or a new activity; and second, an awareness of the whole present system in which our purposes have been being fulfilled (or thwarted)as a “system” instead of a structure. For what we do with structure is observe it, receive it, learn it, repeat it: in “covering” the structured material, we make ourselves its prisoners. But with “system,” what we are doing is speaking. We have something to say about what’s what.

52The “space” we are exploring now is opened up by this distinction between system, as Wittgenstein uses the term here, and structure, as we have distinguished it above. With structure/representation as the centerboard, we are pulled to see, to feel, and to be in certain ways. There is a certain common sense about the world, enforcing a way of playing the game, sailing the course. In the game called language, words represent ideas that correspond to things, objects confront subjects who describe them more or less adequately. Knowledge depends on “truth,” which is a function of this correspondence and this description. Like Wittgenstein, I do not want to depart too hastily after tossing the question “Is there then no objective truth?” We are looking at the question so as to notice the system—including sentences, beliefs, and behavior—in which truth is a centerboard, if not an anchor. We want to notice that asking the question “what is the truth?” nowadays places us in a particular arena, one that presets the answers to other questions—indeed, brings certain other questions into play while hiding others.

53If instead of “what is truth?” we ask “what is responsibility?” or “where is responsibility?” we may see that there is a further answer possible than “describing reality” or “conforming with fact.” Describing reality, communicating knowledge, delivering truth—these are not trivial enterprises. But teachers need a new arena in which to undertake them, one in which they can occur with more power. If, as a context for the teaching of represented structure, we had a different common sense, anchored in what both Saussure and Wittgenstein saw as the nurturing sociality of language, what would that pull for? If “system” were the centerboard, what boat would we all be in together? Would such a common sense allow for, pull for, a new possibility for being related in the classroom, a possibility that what teachers and students do, in their being together and speaking responsibly, their languaging, is share, invent, and bring forth?

  • 23 On Certainty, §107.

54Wittgenstein says in On Certainty that “one can instruct a child to believe in God, or that none exists, and it will accordingly be able to produce apparently telling grounds for the one or the other.”23 Apparently children live into the commitments of their elders. By now, Dustin can almost match me in making grand generalizations about life, pronouncing as eternal truth whatever he wants to do at the moment. But he also has the skill of snow fire. What if we had, alongside our already given commitment to structured knowledge, a commitment to inventing, sharing, and bringing forth for children to live into? Such a commitment, to be effective, will itself have to be invented. “We are working on bringing about the result that we choose the window of inventing being with our students,” I said, and I left the ambiguity in. For perhaps inventing being with our students amounts to the same thing as inventing being with our students. Perhaps that—inventing together—is, among other things, what it means to mean something by a word. “Words don’t mean; people mean,” said S. I. Hayakawa in our high school semantics textbook. It is not a sophisticated pronouncement. But it is easy to forget.

55Building his bridge between knowing and being, Wittgenstein has taken us behind the apparent structure at the surface of things, to get a glimpse of the social functioning, the being together in which that structure appears to us as we mean something by words, in our saying. We now turn to the philosopher in whose work we can glimpse the possibility of inventing saying as a way of being.


1 “Speaking of Objects,” in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 1. Quoted also in Rajchman and West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 136.

2 On Certainty, §108.

3 On Certainty, §106.

4 James Edwards, The Authority of Language (Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990), 140.

5 Tractatus, 6.54.

6 Philosophical Investigations, §109.

7 I and Thou, trans. Kaufman, 64.

8 Professor Hoyt Duggan informs me that in the societies of Old and Middle English, people were not excused from responsibility even if they did not intend to commit the crime.

9 My source here requests anonymity.

10 In Handbook of Applied Behavior Analysis: Social and Instructional Processes, Thomas A. Brigham and A. Charles Catania, eds. (New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1978), there is the following summary:
The behavioral reinforcement paradigm represents learning in terms of the changes in response rate or response probability that occur when reinforcement is contingent on the emission of particular responses... “Behavior is learned only when it is emitted and reinforced.” The basic units of analysis are responses, reinforcers and stimuli.
In applying the behavioral reinforcement paradigm to the construction of programs, the material is arranged to ensure that the appropriate responses are emitted in the presence of the proper stimuli and that such responses are reinforced. The responses to be learned must first be identified, and then provision must be made to see that the responses are emitted. (458)
This description of the necessary machinery of learning has its roots in Locke’s picture of the automatism of sensory perception. Responses, reinforcers, and stimuli are to be as “objectively determined” as the ideas imprinted on the mind. Ten years later, in Beyond Behaviorism (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988), Vicki L. Lee repeats the echo:
The concept of the reflex originated in the work of Descartes and was elaborated by physiologists... it designates a relation between a physical stimulus and a muscular or glandular response. An example is the pupillary reflex in which a bright light elicits pupillary constriction... Stimulus-response psychologies are psychologies based on the concept of the reflex. They identify psychology’s task as a matter of finding stimulus-response connections... Stimulus-response psychologies lead us to expect that given a stimulus, we might predict the response, and that given a response, we might retrodict the stimulus. These psychologies organize psychological knowledge around the concept of the reflex. (151-2)

11 In Krapp’s Last Tape, as the protagonist struggles to rearrange and catalogue the memories of his life, we see that the world of individual manipulation of material, command of resources, has become delapidated. The tape recorder works, and Krapp can use it with facility, but its failure as a medium for living words, its failure even to reconstitute remembered words, becomes more and more appalling—a mix of bathos and chagrin. Krapp repeats absently, fascinated: “Be again. Be again.” I laugh at his absorption in the material on the tape, but I know that every day I am trying to structure a world for myself, and to fit into that structure by finding my identity, myself as a structure. And I recognize that a world in which I try again and again to be again is at best a cruel joke.

12 Philosophical Investigations, §18.

13 Philosophical Investigations, §23.

14 Philosophical Investigations, §208.

15 Philosophical Investsigations, §211 and 212.

16 In his Austrian hill towns, Wittgenstein himself was not so constrained. To spur his recalcitrant students, he would box their ears or pull their hair. This had other results, apparently, than producing the desired cognitive outcomes. Even today, though, we may be sorely tempted to jerk a knot into a kid who, we know, can do better schoolwork. Wittgenstein is saying in this passage that our instinct may be pointing us in the right direction, if we could just find an appropriate and authentic way of answering it, a way that fulfills our impulse to act with our students and not merely on them.

17 Of course, John Dewey made a similar point in work after work. For a précis of his contribution see Gert J. J. Biesta, “Education as Practical Intersubjectivity,” in Educational Theory, vol. 44, no. 3 (Summer 1994), especially 304-9.

18 Philosophical Investigations, §361 and 362.

19 Philosophical Investigations, §114.

20 On Certainty, §102.

21 On Certainty, §132.

22 This is what Hobie Cat did a decade ago.

23 On Certainty, §107.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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