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Philosophy of Education and Wittgenstein's Concept of Language-Games

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.



This essay is an excerpt from a much larger work I wrote in 1978 about the linguistic muddle which permeated educational theory and practice at the time. I suggested that some of the contributions made by the modern analytic movement in philosophy could help educators, and particularly educational philosophers, deal with some of the murky and confusing terms and concepts which existed in the field of education. I particularly endorsed Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of language-games as one of the techniques which could prove valuable.

Since 1978, in my opinion, nothing much has been done about analyzing and clarifying the terms used in educational theory and practice. So, while I have made a few minor corrections to the original manuscript, nothing in the content of the text has been substantially changed. Why change the text? The problem remains much as it was in 1978, over twenty years ago. Indeed, I think the situation is much worse now. It needs to be addressed. It has not been. This essay is a brief look at how Wittgenstein may help educational philosophers and practitioners with the linguistic and conceptual problems they face in discussing their discipline.

Fundamental to an understanding of the philosophical views of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and his concept of language-games is an appreciation for the way in which he conceptualized the function of philosophy. Philosophers have not always agreed on what the purpose of philosophy is and this problem has profound implications for the application of philosophical thought to the questions investigated by scholars in all disciplines of knowledge, including educational theory and practice. So let's begin with a little background information.

Traditional Philosophy

Historically, philosophy has been concerned with the rational explanation of existence or, as some philosophers would have it, the search for a comprehensive view of nature, a universal explanation of everything. This conception of the purpose of philosophy led to the formulation of philosophical systems which attempted to present an all-encompassing, completely unified, theory of reality. Philosophy has, in the words of John Dewey, "implied a certain totality, generality, and ultimateness of both subject and method." [1] The traditional conception of philosophy has presented philosophy as a fundamental or architectonic discipline, laying the foundation for all other disciplines of knowledge. The philosopher becomes an investigator into all knowledge and philosophy is the summary of all branches of knowledge. [2]

Traditional philosophy has generally been organized into subdivisions, each with its own particular questions and problems. The nature of all reality in its most general aspects has been the subject of study of the branch of philosophy referred to as metaphysics and the nature of truth and knowledge, including the establishment of the criteria of truth, has usually been the subject of study of the branch called epistemology. Various other subdivisions of philosophy have been ethics or moral philosophy, political philosophy, and aesthetics. [3] Philosophy of education as a subdivision of general philosophy has emerged quite recently and has been the subject of much attention.

Philosophy of Education

Philosophy of education, as a scholarly discipline, has, for the most part, applied the traditional conception of philosophy to the theory and practice of education. Most philosophers of education have concerned themselves with the problems of the nature of man, the nature of truth, and the nature of value, with an eye to the ways in which solutions to these problems may help to unravel some of the problems specific to the educational enterprise. [4] Textbooks in philosophy of education have tended to reflect the traditional conception of philosophy and spend a large proportion of their time discussing the various systems of philosophy, realism, idealism, experimentalism, and so forth, and their application to educational concerns. [5]

Kneller suggested that philosophy of education could be thought of as an activity in three modes or styles: speculative, prescriptive, and analytic. [6] Speculative educational philosophy attempts a synthesis of knowledge about everything that exists, a search for order and wholeness in all knowledge and experience. It seeks to establish theories of the nature of man and reality so as to order and interpret the facts of educational theory and practice.

Prescriptive educational philosophy, also called normative educational philosophy, attempts to formulate goals, norms, and standards for conducting the process of education. It attempts to assess values and judge conduct, seeking to discover and to recommend principles which can be used for decisions made in the practice of education.

Analytic educational philosophy, a relatively recent development in the philosophy of education, attempts to clarify the statements made in speculative and prescriptive educational philosophy, subjecting the terms and propositions of educational thought and practice to rigorous scrutiny. It examines the premises on which educational conclusions rest, analyzes the language of education, and looks at the kind of evidence which can be used to confirm or refute educational propositions.

The traditional conception of the philosophy of education has been primarily speculative and prescriptive or normative. Speculative philosophy of education has generally laid the foundation for educational thought and educational thought has been, as Kneller pointed out, largely prescriptive. [7] Analytic educational philosophy is relatively new and has become quite popular as a means of attempting to clarify the terms and propositions of speculative and prescriptive educational philosophy.

Analytic Philosophy and Education

The analytic movement in philosophy tended to oppose the traditional conception of philosophy and, at least in England and America today, philosophical inquiry is largely analytical in temperament and method. [8] While there is disagreement among analytic philosophers about many aspects of analysis, they do generally agree that the function of philosophy does not consist of building philosophical systems which attempt to explain all of existence but, rather, the function of philosophy is the clarification of language. [9]

Ayer, one of the early proponents of analytic philosophy, argued that the philosopher must "confine himself to works of clarification" because "the propositions of philosophy are not factual, but linguistic in character" and the propositions of philosophy "express definitions, or the formal consequences of definitions." [10] Pap observed that the term "philosophy" is an ambiguous word and stated:

... though we recognize the unfortunate ambiguity of this word, we do contend that if it is used to refer to a cognitive activity distinct from experimental science and mathematical reasoning, it can only mean logical analysis. [11]

Logical analysis is an analysis of language, specifically the language in which concepts are expressed. It searches for clarity and precision and exposes vagueness, ambiguity, and logical and linguistic fallacies. Analysis results in "conceptual revision." [12]

As was noted previously, philosophy of education has generally been approached with the traditional conception of philosophy in mind. Philosophy of education has been primarily speculative and prescriptive in character. During the past few decades, however, some philosophers of education became interested in the application of analytic philosophy to educational theory and practice. Scheffler, for example, called for the use of philosophical analysis within education because

... such a proposal aims explicitly at improving our understanding of education by clarification of our conceptual apparatus -- the ways in which we formulate our beliefs, arguments, assumptions, and judgments concerning such topics as learning and teaching, character and intellect, subject-matter and skill, desirable ends and appropriate means of schooling. [13]

The same idea was suggested by Kazepides and he considered the primary task of philosophy of education to be the elucidation of the "conceptual foundations of educational thought." [14]

The analytic philosopher of education avoids any comprehensive description of reality and is not interested in prescriptive theories as such. He is interested, rather, in the careful investigation of the many different ways in which one talks about educational experiences. Phenix stated:

... Much of the analysts' attention has been devoted to the careful discussion of the various uses to which such educational terms as "teaching," "learning" and "knowing" are put, with the aim of demonstrating by typical examples that no single definition will suffice, but that a number of different interrelated logical constructions must be distinguished. In view of these distinctions, the analysts show that broad generalizations about the process of education, which are standard for the speculative and ideological types of educational philosophy, have no specifiable meaning, but serve mainly as slogans for the propagation of special pedagogical interests. [15]

The conception of philosophy proposed by the analytic philosophers, its aims, techniques, and suggestions for clarifying the concepts of and the way in which one speaks about education, appears to some philosophers of education to be especially relevant in light of the many conflicting ideologies which confront professional educators as well as the concerned layman. [16] Analytic philosophy can help, not only by analyzing and clarifying the language one uses in discussing educational matters but, according to Newsome, can also provide models of theory, statements of criteria for meaning and verification, and help in unsnarling "the logical and linguistic tangles in pedagogical knowledge." [17]

It was suggested earlier that some differences exist within the analytic movement regarding techniques of analysis even though there is general agreement on the purposes, function, and ends sought by analytic philosophers. Kneller identified two general categories of analysis which he called "formal" analysis and "informal" analysis. [18]

Formal analysis is appropriate especially when used in analyzing the technical language of science and the "formalist" tends to limit the use of ordinary language as a tool of analysis, preferring, instead, to reconstruct concepts through the use of scientific or technical language or the creating of artificial language systems.

Informal analysis tends toward the analysis of ordinary language, the language of more general thinking, the language in which common discourse takes place, the language of many disciplines of knowledge outside of the sphere of science as it has become understood. Informal analysis is more inclusive, casual, and unsystematic, attempting to examine concepts and statements in the language in which they occur. [19]

Formal analysis, according to Kneller, "can help to raise the standards of educational research by analyzing the logical structure of presented knowledge, by reconstructing technical language, and by proposing canons ... for research itself to observe." [20] But it is to informal analysis that one turns when interested in clarifying the language of ordinary discourse. The language of education tends to be that of ordinary discourse.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later years of philosophical inquiry, began to develop techniques for the analysis of ordinary language. One of the major contributions that he made to informal analysis was his concept of language-games.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy

In order to understand the philosophical views and analytic techniques developed by Wittgenstein, it is necessary to understand the way in which he conceptualized the purpose of philosophical investigation. In his commentary on Wittgenstein, Fann pointed out that it was in his method that Wittgenstein made his most important contribution to philosophy and that Wittgenstein was really an artist creating "a new style of thinking, a new way of looking at things." [21] Binkley discussed this notion at length and argued that the analyses performed by Wittgenstein were similar to a stylistic analysis not unlike those that might be performed by someone talking about a painting. According to Binkley, Wittgenstein's analysis is "a skill like criticism" and "like the best criticism, the best philosophy is also an art." [22]

Early in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein maintained that philosophy is not one of the natural sciences. Furthermore, philosophy does not result in philosophical propositions. Instead, "the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts." [23] Philosophy is an activity, the result of which is the clarification of ideas, an attempt to make propositions clear. Later, in the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein maintains that philosophy involves description and not explanation:

We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose -- from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings; in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. [24]

Philosophy, therefore, results in the "uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense." [25] Philosophy simply puts everything in front of us but it does not explain or deduce anything. It does, however, untie "knots in our thinking," so "its results must be simple," although "philosophizing has to be as complicated as the knots it unties." [26] When we see more, according to Wittgenstein, our philosophical dissatisfaction will disappear. [27] See more should result in the disappearance of philosophical problems. Philosophy has the tools for the solution of philosophical problems at hand.

So what is the purpose of philosophy? Wittgenstein answered that it was "to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle." [28]

Wittgenstein often compared the treatment of a question in philosophy to the treatment of an illness. [29] But, he pointed out, "we may not terminate a disease of thought" so it "must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important." [30] Again, the results of philosophy, the untying of the knots in our thinking, are simple, but the process itself can be complex because "the philosopher is the man who has to cure himself of many sicknesses of the understanding before he can arrive at the notions of the sound human understanding." [31]

Hence, philosophy becomes a kind of therapy, a way of ridding ourselves of intellectual illnesses. Since philosophy does not give injections or pills, therapy of this type will help us to cure the disease by uncovering nonsense, clarifying what we say, and critically examining the language we use. But in the end, says Wittgenstein, "philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language: it can in the end only describe it." [32]

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