The Full Introduction

Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of the Subject


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 –1951) is considered by many to be one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. His work in the philosophy of logic, mathematics, mind and language established him as the founder of two movements – logical empiricism (the Vienna Circle) and Oxford-style ordinary language analysis. The impact of his work has been felt in the arts, humanities and social sciences and strongly influenced the directions of both analytic and post-analytical philosophy. His work is difficult to read and interpret and there are many competing interpretations of his philosophy. This brief introduction is designed to introduce students to the man and his work through a set of selective readings that emphasize a broadly cultural approach to his intellectual background, context and life, as well as the influence his thought has exerted on the disciplines, including education and pedagogy.

The analytic revolution in philosophy of education, what Stefaan Cuypers and Christopher Martin (2010) call “a singular analytical paradigm for puzzle-solving in the philosophy of education” was conceived by R.S. Peters as “conceptually foundational” in the sense that it involved “the analysis of concepts [constitutive of education] and with questions about the grounds of knowledge, belief, actions and activities” as a “necessary preliminary to answering other philosophical questions” (p. 5).  In the same volume dedicated to a sympathetic reading of R.S. Peters today M. J. Laverty (2010: 33) maintains “Peters was clearly influenced by the revolution of post-war philosophy, particularly Wittgenstein’s original contribution; but he also strove to establish the revolution’s continuity” with the history of philosophy. Laverty (2010: 30) indicates that “Peters rarely theorized his analytic approach to philosophy of education” and that although he appealed to Wittgenstein on linguistic usage and the concept of games, “Peters held that Wittgenstein was wrong to overlook the possibility of a ‘general principle’ that distinguishes all games.” Peters’ contribution to the analytic paradigm was based on a commitment to a form of conceptual analysis that implied a view of philosophy as a second order discipline that casts philosophers of education as “underlabourers in the garden of knowledge” (R.S. Peters, 1966: 15).

My argument is insofar as Richard Peters’ analytic paradigm was based on an appeal to Wittgenstein is that this was misplaced and represents a gross misreading of Wittgenstein (Peters, 1995). By contrast, I have proposed a reading of the work of the later Wittgenstein which both unsettles the view of Wittgenstein as a placeholder in the analytic tradition and provides interpretive grounds for viewing him closer to the tradition of Continental philosophy and as a thinker deeply influenced by Krauss, Spengler, Nietzsche and Freud who embraces the notion of philosophy as a form of cultural criticism (Peters and Marshall, 1999; Peters, 2002a,b; Peters, Burbules and Smeyers, 2008). The postmodern appropriation of the later Wittgenstein marks him out as a philosopher who anticipated central aspects of the reevaluation of the culture of modernity.  In this chapter I broaden this interpretation to outline a view of subjectivity, knowledge and representation “after” Wittgenstein, a position that provides a more appropriate platform for philosophy of education in the age of globalization, preserving a link to Wittgenstein and his philosophy while investigating the sources for a notion of education as openness, engagement and copoiesis. I provide an account of the Cartesian philosophy of subjectivity and Wittgenstein’s attempt to provide a break with the Cartesian world view that I see as much more important for contemporary philosophy of education than reference to any method of conceptual analysis. In the next section I explore further Wittgenstein anti-Cartesianism as a basis for deconstructing Descartes’ view of mind, human beings and modern philosophy. Third and finally, encouraged by Wittgenstein disassembly of the Cartesian model of subjectivity I provide a model of education as openness, engagement and copoiesis, one I argue that is more suited to the global, networked and digital environment we live in.

Descartes and The Philosophy of Subjectivity

The philosophy of subjectivity has been one of the crowning achievements of Western philosophy that has help to shape and define modern philosophy, the foundations of science, liberal political and education thought, and the culture of modernity.  Of all philosophers responsible for the subjective turn and for the subsequent epistemological foundations and direction of modern philosophy René Descartes deserves special mention. In his own lifetime his reputation rested on his contributions to mathematics and cosmology and only in the nineteenth century did his metaphysics and epistemology contribute to the Kantian project of reconstituting the nature of philosophy. His skepticism become important in the revival of Anglo-phone empiricist epistemology in the twentieth century and his idea of the self as a locus of subjectivity independent of the world—its ethical and political implications— began to impact French and German philosophy from the 1930s with philosophical engagement of his work by Husserl, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, among others (Gaukroker, 2008).

Descartes “epistemological turn” (after  Bergmann) is one of the centers of his works that lead him to counter skepticism by locating certainty in subjective consciousness and set modern philosophy on a path intimately connected to theory of knowledge and later embellished by Kant’s transcendental question about synthetic a priori knowledge.  Barry Stroud (2008: 513) suggests “The philosophical, mathematical and scientific of Descartes is now so deep and so pervasive in our culture that its full extent can no longer be measured with certainty or precision.”  Descartes’ philosophy of mind embraced a mind/body dualism, individualism about mental contents and adherence to a strong doctrine of privileged first-person access that holds introspective judgments about one’s own mental states enjoy the privileged epistemic status of infalliability and immunity to error.  Descartes was acknowledged by Husserl as “the genuine patriarch of phenonmenology” and christened his own phenomenology a new cartesianism. Heidegger, by contrast, saw the Cartesianism  as a fundamental wrong turn and rebelled against its legacy suggested that the cogito sum had to be “phenomenologically destroyed” (see Martin, 2008: 496).

The words “subject” and “subjectivity” have many different meanings. The word “subject” comes from the Latin word “subjectum” which means something under or constituting the foundations of other things. In Aristotle “subject” is not a philosophical category that belongs to human beings and up the Descartes’ usage “subject” does not function as a philosophical category nor is it considered to take any kind of precedence to the concept of substance. “Subject” in addition to the use that Descartes firms up as a metaphysical dominant category as the mind, ego, or agent that sustains or assumes the form of thought or consciousness, also carries the meaning of “vassal” — someone who owes fealty to a monarch one who lives in the territory and owes allegiance to a sovereign power. This is the political and ethical meaning of subject that Michel Foucault exploits in his studies of subjectivity. Subjectivity means many things: consciousness, intentionality, the will, individual volition, introspection.

I argue that an understanding of the significance of Wittgenstein’s work as breaking with and offering a critique of the Cartesian model of subjectivity is more important to philosophy of education than the method of conceptual analysis that R.S. Peters and other analytical philosophers of education extract and appeal to in the work of Wittgenstein. The Cartesian model of subjectivity arises out of a certain picture or image of the knowing subject deeply culturally embedded in theology, medieval and scholastic philosophy (even though it tries to break with these influences) and a mathematical conception of certainty that is seen as providing appropriate foundations for knowledge. As Wittgenstein (1953, §115) suggests (speaking of the “picture language” and the general form of a proposition Tractatus) “a picture held us captive, and we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” The question so important to philosophy and the nature of education is how to dissemble the metaphysical Cartesian world picture that comprised the foundations of modern philosophy through the binary oppositions from mind/body, subject/object, inner/outer to word/object, signifier/signified.  

In the Investigations and later works Wittgenstein wrestles with the Cartesian picture of subjectivity and its implications for knowledge and representation, providing us with an alternative vocabulary to discuss the Cartesian picture of mind as objects which possess properties and as a non-physical substance that thinks, famously referred to as the ghost in the machine (Gilbert Ryle’s expression).  Wittgenstein takes on this philosophical struggle to unseat Descartes’ view of mind as both an essentialist and dualist conception—internalist, private, non-physical—that arises from his view of nature and science as proceeding from mechanistic (“mechanics”) principles and a view of knowledge that embraces a form of epistemic internalism that holds is that “the difference between true belief and knowledge consists in some form of justification and, crucially, that justification consists in factors that are, in some sense, internal to the subject of the belief” (Rowlands, 2008: 6). The Cartesian picture of mind involves many different threads, not just a conception of mind, but a view of knowledge and representation, of philosophy and a view of the nature of human beings. Dislodging this picture by disassembling it and describing it as mythology (as legitimating a certain world picture) requires something more than argument or conceptual analysis.

It is worth noting in passing that the appeal to Wittgenstein by R.S. Peters on the “revolution in philosophy” does nothing to justify the method of conceptual analysis he advocates but rarely spells out: Wittgenstein contra Peters does not see philosophy in any way as a foundational, second-order activity based on the clarification of concepts.  While the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus may have seen philosophy as a critique of language using logical analysis to reveal the form of propositions “in order to see the world rightly” it does not result in linguistic hygiene or the meaning of concepts. His later conception of language games, family resemblance and “meaning as use” further distances Wittgenstein from anything like conceptual analysis: first, we must look to the variety of uses to which the word is put which is purely descriptive rather than explanatory or prescriptive; second, we must be aware of the diversity and multiplicity of uses that only have life within a language game and form of life; third, a concept or word only has meaning in the context of a sentence and sentences with the network of judgments; fourth, while language games have rules these cannot be learned theoretically but only in practice; fifth, by following the use we discover only “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing” (Investigations,66), a family resemblance, that resists all explanation and definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions;  sixth, the rules of grammar liberated from the bounds of strict logic express the norms of language and tell us what kind of object anything is (Investigations,371, 373) for they are embedded in the culture and “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (Investigations, 23). No reading of Wittgenstein validates or justifies anything like conceptual analysis but analysis only as a therapeutic activity of “assembling reminders for a particular purpose” (Investigations, 127). As he writes in the Investigations “there is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies” (133). The aim of philosophy is “to shew the fly out of the fly-bottle” (Investigations, 309).

It is significant that for Wittgenstein language is not the foundation—words and justifications come to an end (On Certainty, 192) on the base of “hinge propositions” which is neither true or false but remain firm for us. When he writes: “Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end; - but the end is not certain propositions' striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game” (On Certainty, 204) Wittgenstein is suggesting that there is only cultural practice at the bottom of our language games, an ungrounded way of acting. Contrary to Descartes’ starting point of the indubitability of the reflecting cogito as offering the foundations of knowledge based on a mathematical model of certainty that ultimately leads to a self-stultifying solipsistic self, Wittgenstein both naturalizes and socializes cognitive processes locating them first in language and then as part of the activity of a culture. He is thus not a foundationalist in any accepted definition of the term. For him certainty and the very possibility of meaning lies in the background context without which propositions could not even be enunciated: “…I want to conceive [certainty] as something that lies beyond being justified or unjustified; as it were, as something animal”(On Certainty, 359),  (See Peters, )

The notion of philosophy as a kind of therapy has a set of link and references that take us back to the beginnings of philosophy and certainly to the Stoics who held “that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage—a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection—would not undergo them” (Baltzly, 2004). The therapeutic notion of philosophy was intimately tied to the pursuit of the good life and philosophy as a therapy of emotions. Gordon Baker, among others, provides a therapeutic reading of Investigations that positions Wittgenstein as attempting to break us free of the impulse to metaphysics through an elaborately structured dialogue where the reader is encouraged to think for themselves. The work of Stanley Cavell, James Conant, and Cora Diamond regards Wittgenstein's philosophy as entirely therapeutic, rather than as having any theoretical or metaphysical aspects. Certainly there are a range of comments by Wittgenstein scattered throughout his work where he uses the notion of therapy to describe his activity of doing philosophy such as “In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important” (Z 382). Wittgenstein also extends this conception to education when he says “I trot out all the problems that education represses without solving. I say to those repressed doubts: you are quite correct, go on asking, demand clarification” (PG, p. 382).

The justification of R.S. Peters approach to philosophy of education by means of a distinctive and foundational method of conceptual analysis does not hold water and its justification cannot be found in Wittgenstein.

By contrast, the ‘new Wittgenstein’ coalesces around a series of common interpretive protocols: Wittgenstein is not advancing theories in philosophy but rather employing a therapeutic method to deconstruct philosophical puzzles; he is helping us to work free of the confusions that become evident when we begin to philosophize; at the same time, Wittgenstein is disabusing us of the notion that we can stand outside language and command an external view, and that such an external view is both necessary and possible for grasping the essence of thought and language.[1] On the new reading, Wittgenstein encourages us to see that our intuitions about meaning and thought are best accommodated ‘by attention to our everyday forms of expression and to the world those forms of expression serve to reveal’ (Crary & Read, 2000: 1). This new schema for reading Wittgenstein also puts less emphasis on the decisive break in his thought, represented by the Tractatus and the posthumous Investigations, to emphasize, by comparison, significant continuities of his thought centring around his therapeutic conception of philosophy.

The new reading that emphasises the therapeutic character of Wittgenstein’s philosophical aims and method, I would argue, is sympathetic to and consistent with the ‘postmodern’ view of Wittgenstein that Jim Marshall and I presented in Wittgenstein: Philosophy, Postmodernism, Pedagogy (Peters & Marshall, 1999a) which explicitly provides

an emphasis on a literary, cultural and (auto)biographical reading of Wittgenstein’s works, their intertextuality, the expression of the spirit of European (Viennese) modernism in the Tractatus, and the anticipation of certain ‘postmodern’ themes in his later works which, on the one hand, cast him in close philosophical proximity to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Heidegger and, on the other, project his writings into an interesting engagement with poststructuralist thought (Peters & Marshall, 1999a: 19-20).

This cultural reading, in part, was inspired by Cavell’s work, which we took as an exemplar both in reading Wittgenstein in relation to the movement of modernism and against Wittgenstein’s Viennese cultural background. Cavell’s writings also draw widely upon the philosophical tradition and emphasise the parallels between Wittgenstein and many contemporary thinkers, including both Derrida and Foucault. It is a view that my co-authors to this work may not entirely agree and I do not wish to label them with my reading, even though we agree on the outlines of an interpretation that firmly views Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher.

In ‘postmodern’ reading, while we do not maintain that there are two Wittgensteins as in the standard narrative, we do argue that the Tractatus is modernist in its formalism, while the Investigations anticipates certain ‘postmodernist’ themes (Peters & Marshall, 2001). The distinction is principally a matter of the style of doing philosophy and it is reflective of the impact of larger cultural forces upon Wittgenstein and, significantly, also the six years break from philosophy (in an institutional sense) which Wittgenstein spent as a schoolteacher. It does not deny that there are significant continuities in his thought, say, for instance in his view of philosophy. In this reading it is possible to argue that the therapeutic aim became more manifest in Wittgenstein’s ‘pedagogical’ style and in a view we called ‘philosophy as pedagogy’ (Peters and Marshall, 1999b). Yet nowhere in the presentation of this view did we use the terms ‘social constructivism’, nor do we think that ‘postmodernism’ (whatever that elusive term means) necessarily entails social constructivism in any of its versions.

The cultural and postmodern reading of Wittgenstein, like much of postmodernism, considered as a whole, tends to emphasise a number of overlapping cluster concepts that emphasize its openness and lack of essentiality, including the following:

  • anti-foundationalism;
  • anti-essentialism;
  • anti- or post-epistemological standpoint;
  • anti-realism about meaning and reference;
  • suspicion of transcendental arguments and viewpoints;
  • rejection of the picture of knowledge as accurate representation;
  • rejection of truth as correspondence to reality;
  • rejection of canonical descriptions and final vocabularies;
  • suspicion of metanarratives.

To this list[2] we might add an emphasis on linguistic use and therapeutic view of philosophy; that is, an embodiment of many of the features of the list above and an ethos, above all, concerning philosophy as a critique of language summed up best in the famous quotation from the Investigations: ‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’ (#109). It is a view that underlies the development of social sciences and cultural studies in the latter half of the twentieth-century; perhaps, sloganized in the twin methodological imperatives: the linguistic turn, the significance of representation, and the so-called ‘social construction of reality’, on the one hand; and, the attempt to overcome the dualisms, the search for certainty and essences, and the subjectivism that is the legacy of the Cartesian thought.


Cuypers, Stefaan E.  and Martin, Christopher (2009) (Eds.) Special Issue: Reading R. S. Peters Today Analysis, Ethics and the Aims of Education, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43: 3-7.

Gaukroker, S. (2008) Life and Works. In: A Companion to Descartes. Janet Broughton & Jon Carriero (eds.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Laverty, M.J. (2009) “Learning Our Concepts,” Reading R. S. Peters Today Analysis, Ethics and the Aims of Education, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 43:27-40.

Martin,W.M. (2008) Descartes and the Phenomenological Tradition. In: A Companion to Descartes. Janet Broughton & Jon Carriero (eds.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Peters, M. A. (1995) “Philosophy and Education: ‘After’ Wittgenstein.” In: P. Smeyers and J. Marshall (Eds.) Philosophy and Education: Accepting Wittgenstein’s Challenge. Dordrecht, Springer.

Peters, M. A. (2002a) “Wittgenstein, Education and the Philosophy of Mathematics,” Theory and Science, 3 (3): http://theoryandfscience.icaap.rorg/.

Peters, M. A. (2002b) “Wittgenstein and Post-Analytic Philosophy of Education: Rorty or Lyotard?,” Educational Theory and Philosophy, 29 (2): 1-32.

Peters, M. A., Burbules, N. & Smeyers, P.  (2008, 2010) Saying and Doing: Wittgenstein as a Pedagogical Philosopher. Boulder, Paradigm Press.

Peters, M.A. (2011) “The Last Post? Post-Postmodernism and the Linguistic U-Turn in Educational Theory” (Chapter 12), especially the section” The Linguistic Turn: Ideal and Oxford Language Philosophy,” in my The Last book of Postmodernism: Apocalyptic Thinking, Philosophy and Education in the Twenty-First Century, New York, Peter Lang.

Peters, M.A. & Marshall, J.D. (1999) Wittgenstein: Philosophy, Postmodernism, Pedagogy. Westport, CT. & London, Bergin & Garvey.

Peters, R.S. (1966) Ethics and Education. London, George Allen & Unwin.

Rowlands, Mark (2008) The Body in Mind: Understanding Cognitive Processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stroud, B. (2008) Our Debt to Descartes. In: A Companion to Descartes. Janet Broughton & Jon Carriero (eds.) Oxford: Blackwell

[1] The remaining paragraphs are drawn from my Preface to the paperback entitled “Philosophy-as-Pedagogy” in Peters, Burbules & Smeyers (2010) Wittgenstein as a Pedagogical Philosopher.

[2] The list is taken from Bernd Magnus' (1989) discussion of Nietzsche in relation to postmodern criticism. In Peters & Marshall (1999a) we devote considerable space to exploring the nature of the historical and intellectual connections between Nietzsche and Wittgenstein (see Chapters 2 and 4), seen as thinkers sharing a significant range of concerns. To Magnus' list we might also add what Rorty calls ‘antirepresentationalism’ and also add, alongside ‘suspicion of metanarratives’, the turn to narrative and narratology, more generally — the ‘petite récits’ pitted against metanarratives by Lyotard (1984). Significantly, Lyotard (1984) makes central use of Wittgenstein (see Peters, 1995), in a creative misappropriation to emphasise the conflictual or dissensual, nature of language-games.