Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

Spencer Robins in The Paris Review:

3-ludwig-wittgenstein-1-dreizehnBy the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell.

At this time in his life—around 1919, when he turned thirty—Wittgenstein wanted badly to transform himself. Convinced he was a moral failure, he took extreme steps to change his circumstances, divesting himself of his enormous family fortune (which he dispersed among his siblings, making sure he could never legally access it again); leaving the palatial family home he’d grown up in (it was literally called the “Palais Wittgenstein”); and looking for the kind of hard and honest work he hoped would distract him from his despair and allow him to do something of value. In choosing teaching he was influenced by a romantic idea of what it would be like to work with peasants—an idea he’d gotten from reading Tolstoy. His family was perplexed by his decisions. His sister Hermine told him that applying his genius to teaching children was like using a “precision instrument” to open crates.

Read the rest here.