Discover the Spelling Dictionary That Ludwig Wittgenstein Created for Elementary School Students

He only pub­lished two books of phi­los­o­phy, and only one of them in his life­time, but Lud­wig Wittgen­stein’s influ­ence on 20th cen­tu­ry thought is incal­cu­la­ble. Both of his books, the Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus and the posthu­mous Philo­soph­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tions, con­sti­tute major turn­ing points in ana­lyt­ic philosophy—the one inspir­ing the 1920s log­i­cal pos­i­tivism of the Vien­na Cir­cle, the oth­er repu­di­at­ing Wittgenstein’s ear­li­er thought and invig­o­rat­ing mid-cen­tu­ry prag­ma­tism and the Ordi­nary Lan­guage school.

“By the 1930s,” notes Tim Rayn­er at Phi­los­o­phy for Change, “Wittgen­stein had decid­ed” that the the­o­ry of lan­guage he had advanced in the Trac­ta­tus “was quite wrong. He devot­ed the rest of his life to explain­ing why.” This marked a dra­mat­ic shift away from the work that first made him famous, but Wittgen­stein nev­er did any­thing halfway. After pub­lish­ing the Trac­ta­tus—part­ly com­posed while he fought in World War I—the Aus­tri­an son of a wealthy Vien­nese indus­tri­al­ist announced that he had solved all of the prob­lems in phi­los­o­phy. Noth­ing more need­ed to be said on the mat­ter.

He “retired” to try his hand at sev­er­al oth­er trades, includ­ing grade school teacher, for a peri­od of about six years in rur­al vil­lages in Aus­tria. “By the time he decid­ed to teach,” Spencer Robins notes at The Paris Review, “Wittgen­stein was well on his way to being con­sid­ered the great­est philoso­pher alive.” He couldn’t have cared less. “Con­vinced he was a moral fail­ure, he took extreme steps to change his cir­cum­stances, divest­ing him­self of his enor­mous fam­i­ly for­tune” and choos­ing a pro­fes­sion “influ­enced by a roman­tic idea of what it would be like to work with peasants—an idea he’d got­ten from read­ing Tol­stoy.”

Wittgen­stein was an unspar­ing taskmas­ter, by all accounts. His brief ele­men­tary teach­ing career end­ed abrupt­ly in 1926 when he vicious­ly attacked a stu­dent. While his per­son­al­i­ty did not suit him to the role at all, his ped­a­gogy was appar­ent­ly very effec­tive. Wittgen­stein  “engaged his stu­dents in a sort of ‘project-based learn­ing’ that wouldn’t be out of place in the best ele­men­tary class­rooms today,” writes Robins. In the last years of teach­ing, he worked with his stu­dents to pro­duce what is tech­ni­cal­ly his sec­ond pub­lished book—Wörter­buch für Volkss­chulen, a Ger­man spelling dic­tio­nary for ele­men­tary schools.

One of the shocks that await­ed the philoso­pher when he arrived in rur­al schools was the expense of books, and stu­dents’ inabil­i­ty to obtain them. “I had nev­er real­ized dic­tio­nar­ies would be so might­i­ly expen­sive,” he told edu­ca­tion­al­ist Lud­wig Hansel. “I think, if I live long enough, I will pro­duce a small dic­tio­nary for ele­men­tary schools.” Often a prag­ma­tist in life, if not always in his thought, Wittgen­stein took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to turn this promise into a teach­able moment, test­ing drafts of his dic­tio­nary in the class­room. “The improve­ment of spelling was aston­ish­ing,” he remarked.

The dic­tio­nary, and Wittgenstein’s teach­ing meth­ods in gen­er­al dur­ing this peri­od, “reveal his con­tin­ued inter­est in the phi­los­o­phy of lan­guage and its prac­ti­cal, every­day man­i­fes­ta­tions,” as Désirée Weber, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Polit­i­cal The­o­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Woost­er in Ohio, writes at the British Wittgen­stein Soci­ety site. Copies of the 42-page book are extreme­ly rare. The page above comes from a set of proof pages dis­cov­ered and exam­ined by Weber. The pages show the philoso­pher tai­lor­ing his ref­er­ence guide to the world his stu­dents knew and the lan­guage they already spoke.

“Although there is some ques­tion” which, or whether, the var­i­ous edi­to­r­i­al marks are in Wittgenstein’s own hand, “the con­tents of the dic­tio­nary and the cor­rec­tions yield a fas­ci­nat­ing view of the words that Wittgen­stein deemed cen­tral to the forms of life and lan­guage-games in which his stu­dents were immersed.” He cap­tured “the speci­fici­ty of the rur­al Aus­tri­an dialect,” Weber writes at the Wittgen­stein Ini­tia­tive, as well as “words that per­tained to cul­tur­al prac­tices that were part of their com­mu­ni­ty and with which they would have been well acquaint­ed.”

Wittgen­stein elab­o­rates his prac­ti­cal pur­pose in an intro­duc­tion, show­ing his intent to ini­ti­ate his stu­dents into their “lan­guage-using com­mu­ni­ty” and into “the respon­si­bil­i­ty this car­ries,” Weber writes. The project also shows him engag­ing in the the­o­ret­i­cal work that would occu­py him for the rest of his career.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Lud­wig Wittgen­stein & His Philo­soph­i­cal Insights on the Prob­lems of Human Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

In Search of Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Seclud­ed Hut in Nor­way: A Short Trav­el Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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