Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Short, Strange & Brutal Stint as an Elementary School Teacher

Wittgenstein students

Lud­wig Wittgen­stein fin­ished writ­ing the Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus, the achieve­ment for which most of us remem­ber him, in 1918; three years lat­er came its first pub­li­ca­tion in Ger­many. And to what prob­lem did Wittgen­stein put his lumi­nous philo­soph­i­cal mind in the inter­im? Teach­ing a class of ele­men­tary school­ers in rur­al Aus­tria. “Well on his way to being con­sid­ered the great­est philoso­pher alive,” as Spencer Robins puts it in a thor­ough Paris Review post on Wittgen­stein’s teach­ing stint, he also found him­self “con­vinced he was a moral fail­ure.” Search­ing for a solu­tion, he got rid of his fam­i­ly for­tune, left the “Palais Wittgen­stein” in which he’d grown up, and out of “a roman­tic idea of what it would be like to work with peasants—an idea he’d got­ten from read­ing Tol­stoy,” went to teach kids in the mid­dle of nowhere. See them all above.\

“I am to be an ele­men­tary-school teacher in a tiny vil­lage called Trat­ten­bach,” Wittgen­stein wrote to his own teacher and friend Bertrand Rus­sell in a let­ter dat­ed Octo­ber 23, 1921. A month lat­er, in anoth­er let­ter, he described his cir­cum­stances as those of “odi­ous­ness and base­ness,” com­plain­ing that “I know human beings on the aver­age are not worth much any­where, but here they are much more good-for-noth­ing and irre­spon­si­ble than else­where.” The great philoso­pher’s exper­i­ment in pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion would appear not to have gone well.

And yet Wittgen­stein comes off, by many accounts, as an exem­plary and almost unbe­liev­ably engaged teacher. He and his stu­dents, in Robins’ words, “designed steam engines and build­ings togeth­er, and built mod­els of them; dis­sect­ed ani­mals; exam­ined things with a micro­scope Wittgen­stein brought from Vien­na; read lit­er­a­ture; learned con­stel­la­tions lying under the night sky; and took trips to Vien­na, where they stayed at a school run by his sis­ter Her­mine.” Her­mine her­self remem­bered the kids “pos­i­tive­ly climb­ing over each oth­er in their eager­ness” to answer their philoso­pher-teacher’s ques­tions, and at least one par­tic­u­lar­ly promis­ing kid among them received Wittgen­stein’s exten­sive extracur­ric­u­lar instruc­tion — and even an offer of adop­tion.

We might also con­sid­er Wittgen­stein a cham­pi­on, in his own way, of equal treat­ment for the sex­es: unlike oth­er teach­ers in rur­al ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Aus­tria, he expect­ed the girls to solve the very same ver­tig­i­nous­ly dif­fi­cult math prob­lems he put to the boys. But by the same token, he doled out cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment to them just as equal­ly when they got the answer wrong, and even when they did­n’t grasp the con­cepts at hand as swift­ly as he might have liked. This rough treat­ment cul­mi­nat­ed in “the Haid­bauer inci­dent,” an occa­sion of child-smack­ing con­se­quen­tial enough in Wittgen­stein’s life to mer­it its own Wikipedia page, and which effec­tive­ly end­ed his edu­ca­tion­al involve­ment with young­sters. The inci­dent report­ed­ly left  an 11-year-old school­boy “uncon­scious after being hit on the head dur­ing class.”

“Ulti­mate­ly, he was to alien­ate the vil­lagers of Trat­ten­bach with his tyran­ni­cal and often bul­ly­ing behav­ior, the result of a mind unable to empathize with the stage at which some of his pupils found them­selves in their learn­ing,” writes edu­ca­tion blog­ger Alex Beard in his own post on Wittgen­stein-as teacher. “Today we would admire his high expec­ta­tions and the puri­ty of his inten­tion as an edu­ca­tor, but look rather less kind­ly on the Ohrfeige (ear-box­ing) and Haareziehen (hair-pulling) that his stu­dents lat­er recalled.” We mod­ern-day Wittgen­stein fans have to ask our­selves what won­ders we might we have learned had fate assigned our ele­men­tary-school selves to his class­room — and whether we would have grad­u­at­ed to our next year unscathed.

Read more about Wittgen­stein’s stint as a teacher at The Paris Review.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bertrand Rus­sell on His Stu­dent Lud­wig Wittgen­stein: Man of Genius or Mere­ly an Eccen­tric?

Wittgen­stein and Hitler Attend­ed the Same School in Aus­tria, at the Same Time (1904)

Wittgen­stein Day-by-Day: Face­book Page Tracks the Philosopher’s Wartime Expe­ri­ence 100 Years Ago

Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus Gets Adapt­ed Into an Avant-Garde Com­ic Opera

See the Homes and Stud­ies of Wittgen­stein, Schopen­hauer, Niet­zsche & Oth­er Philoso­phers

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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