Teaching Wittgenstein And Making The Familiar Unfamiliar

I’m teaching Wittgenstein this semester–for the first time ever–to my Twentieth-Century Philosophy class. My syllabus requires my students to read two long excerpts from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations; bizarrely enough, in my original version of that exalted contract with my students, I had allotted one class meeting to a discussion of the section from the Tractatus. Three classes later, we are still not done; as you can tell, it has been an interesting challenge thus far.

The style of the Tractatus is notorious for the difficulties it can create for the unprepared. Many students find it its terseness, its statement in quasi-mathematical form as a series of seeming definitions, lemmas, theorems and corollaries–as part of a presentation of a grand total of seven propositions–off-putting and abstruse. Yet others find in it a curious beauty, a poetic statement, stark and austere, pregnant with meaning and suggestion. The content of the Tractatus can be forbidding too. Many philosophical doctrines–the picture theory of language, the truth-functional account of propositions, logical atomism and the correspondence theory of truth, the verification theory of meaning, the ‘no-sense’ theory of ethical and emotive statements–may be found here, varying in their level of implicit or explicit statement. A special vocabulary is employed, and the meanings of many of the special terms of art employed–‘facts’ for instance–has to be unpacked carefully.

I have read Wittgenstein before, and indeed, did my dissertation with a logician, Rohit Parikh, who doubled as a Wittgenstein scholar. (This excellent paper by Juliet Floyd explores the several dimensions of his appropriation of Wittgensteinian themes in his work.) For several years during graduate school I attended a discussion and reading group, conducted by Parikh, which often veered off into conversations on Wittgensteinian themes. Years after I completed my dissertation, I realized that many of its fundamental presuppositions and descriptions bore a similar stamp. But, I never taught Wittgenstein.

Now I have. And so, yet again, I’ve been reminded of how radically different my relationship to a philosophical text or doctrine becomes once I’ve had occasion to teach the material. I read differently; I critique differently, trying to anticipate the ambiguities my students might encounter; I notice more in the text, I seize on more. And then, in the classroom, as I work directly through the reading with my students my relationship with it changes yet again.

Sometimes, my teaching has consisted of making a few opening statements, previewing the theories and theses to be presented, and then turning to the text to find their statements within. I invite students to point me to particular propositions that they have found thought-provoking and/or difficult. At times, I have read aloud sections in class, stopping to offer and receive–along with the class–explications and exegesis. I’ve used the ‘reading-aloud-in-class’ method before; in that case, for Leibniz and Kant. What I wrote then about that particular method of approaching a philosophical text still holds:

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context.

Now, with Wittgenstein and Tractatus, I am struck again, by how the seemingly familiar takes on a little of its older novelty.

One comment on “Teaching Wittgenstein And Making The Familiar Unfamiliar

  1. wordpressjf says:

    Hi Samir, Thanks so much for this post on reading out loud, and your other ones too (great job on the importance of therapy). I’m happy that you enjoyed my tribute to Rohit Parikh, a great logician and wonderful philosopher. — I wanted to say that reading Wittgenstein out loud is an excellent approach. I used to lecture on the later Wittgenstein, for about 10 years, thinking I should develop my own theory of the text in that way. I wrote out the lectures and still have them. But after about a decade I decided, no more! I don’t want a show. So now I teach the Investigations every other spring (this year it’s on “aspects”, and Part II of the book), and we do some reading out loud each week, to get the voices and transitions right, and then we read one contemporary article of relevance each week, and we discuss, discuss, argue and argue. It works beautifully, and helps me get along in my own understanding of things.

    I believe the Investigations, distilled from lectures and talking, was intended to stimulate talking. Thanks for reminding us of what Stanley Cavell calls the issue of “voice”. Having one isn’t a trivial matter, in philosophy as in life.

    Best wishes,
    Juliet

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