I recently finished reading Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, a thorough biography of the twentieth century philosopher. (Some entertaining comics about Wittgenstein’s philosophy are here, here, and here.) It’s an excellent book, diving into the life of a remarkable, strange, and intense person. Among other things, Wittgenstein refused any part of his family’s vast fortune; he insisted, successfully, on being sent to the front lines during World War I; and he had awe-inspiring reputation as a philosopher despite publishing only two significant works, the first of which he later decided was deeply flawed.
A few things in the book reminded me of current discussions of teaching and academia, perhaps not surprisingly given the subject. Specifically, there are connections to “alternative careers,” active learning, and the size of the academic world.
From page 323:
Similarly, he [Wittgenstein] urged Britton, as he urged most of his students, to avoid becoming a teacher of philosophy. There was only one thing worse, and that was becoming a journalist. Britton should do a real job, and work with ordinary people. Academic life was detestable…
Maurice Drury had already taken Wittgenstein’s advice, and was working with a group of unemployed shipbuilders in Newcastle. As the project neared its completion, however, he was tempted into applying for a post as a lecturer in philosophy at Armstrong College, Newcastle. In the event, the post was given to Dorothy Emmet, and Drury went to South Wales to help run a communal market garden for unemployed miners. ‘You owe great debt to Miss Emmett’, Wittgenstein insisted; ‘she saved you from becoming a professional philosopher.’
These days we try to help graduate students prepare for “alternative” (i.e. non-academic) careers. Wittgenstein was far ahead of his time! His motivations, however, were not the current ones related primarily to overproduction of Ph.D.s and the mathematical impossibility of faculty positions for all these students. Rather, he viewed “real” work, especially manual work, as more fulfilling and worthwhile than being a university professor, and furthermore he considered much of his academic field (philosophy) to be meaningless. He frequently encouraged students to take up more tangible vocations, and and he himself did so at times. During World War II, for example, rather than remaining at Cambridge to teach he got a job as an army hospital porter, and then a lab technician (which he was apparently quite good at).
One currently sees little discussion of the virtues of manual labor, perhaps unfortunately, but the second motivation, a general discontent with the field, comes up more and more. There is a sense that entire fields are rife with incorrect and incoherent studies and poor methodologies. This criticism tends to be applied to the social sciences, though it also extends to some of biology (justifiably, in my opinion). The physical sciences have largely been spared, though they suffer the alternate criticism of focusing on irrelevant minutiae (also justifiable). Science marches on, but questions like this one from an Economics grad student, “Has my job throughout the last several years been completely useless (or even destructive) for society?” (link) keep coming up, much more so than twenty years ago. I wonder what Wittgenstein would say. Perhaps he wouldn’t care — he had a strong dislike of the prominence of science in culture even in the first half of the twentieth century, and I’m sure he’d be appalled by its role now.
As a tangent I’ll point out that (i) biophysics continues to be a wonderful field, and (ii) I’ve sent to the publisher the revised, complete draft of my popular science book on biophysics, which I’m delighted about! Please see here for a description, and to sign up for a notification when it’s available, and here for a bit more about the book.
One of the strangest episodes in Wittgenstein’s life was his stint as an elementary school teacher in a rural Austrian village, a vocation he pursued shortly after World War I. In many ways he embodied the philosophy of the school Reform Movement of the time, and modern “Active Learning” beliefs, focusing on encouraging thought and discovery rather than rote memorization. Observing Wittgenstein at a vocational school for boys, prior to his school-teaching job, his sister wrote:
He did not simply lecture, but tried to lead the boys to the correct solution by means of questions. On one occasion he had them inventing a steam engine, on another designing a tower on the blackboard and on yet another depicting moving human figures. The interest which he aroused was enormous. Even the ungifted and usually inattentive among the boys came up with astonishingly good answers, and they were positively climbing over each other in their eagerness to be given a chance to answer or to demonstrate a point. [p. 194]
In his own classes, the kids were taught “botany by identifying plants on walks in the countryside, architecture by identifying building styles during an excursion to Vienna,” etc., all with an emphasis on questioning and discovery.
“This naturally worked better with some children than with others. Wittgenstein achieved especially good results with some of the boys that he taught… To these children, he became a sort of father figure. However, to those children who were not gifted, or whose interest failed to be aroused by his enthusiasm, he became not a figure of fatherly kindness, but a tyrant.” [p. 195]
At the time, of course, corporal punishment was common in schools. Even by those standards, however, Wittgenstein was extreme. “Another girl who was weak at mathematics remembers that one day Wittgenstein pulled her hair so hard that when she later combed it a lot of it fell out. The reminiscences of his former pupils abound with stories of the “Ohrfeige’ (ear-boxing) and ‘Haare Ziehen’ (hair-pulling) they received.” [p. 196]
As news of this brutality reached the children’s parents it contributed to a growing feeling against him. It was not that the villagers disapproved of corporal punishment, nor that such methods of discipline were at all unusual… However, though it was accepted that an unruly boy should have his ears boxed if he misbehaved, it was not expected that a girl who could not grasp algebra should receive the same treatment. [p. 196]
All this ended badly: Wittgenstein one day struck a boy on the head several times; the boy collapsed. Official charges were filed against Wittgenstein, who resigned and then left teaching altogether. In the rest of his life, Wittgenstein doesn’t seem violent or cruel, by the way; one wonders about why he considered this acceptable treatment of children.
I’m not sure what lessons to draw from all of this, except that active learning is hard. It does call for a lot of energy on the part of faculty, and engagement on the part of students.
The Size of the World
Often when reading about science in the past, I’m struck by how small the scientific world is. A handful of people did everything. At Cambidge just before World War II, Wittgenstein gave lecturers on “The Foundations of Mathematics,” which often turned into fierce debates with… Alan Turing, one of the giants of twentieth century math and computer science!
Of course, the human population was smaller, about two billion rather than the current eight, and even proportionally the fraction of academics and scientists was far smaller. In 2017, for example, in the US alone 40,000 doctoral degrees in science or engineering were awarded, over seven times the number fifty years earlier (source). The ratio is even larger if one considers the whole world. This gigantic growth has a lot of benefits — we know a lot more than we used to about how the world works — but also serious drawbacks (see the first topic, above). Overall, it’s a very different landscape than the one Wittgenstein lived in, and I wonder how he would fit into it.
This last topic is one that is rarely discussed; perhaps someday it will get a post of its own.
My colored-pencil copy of Wayne Thiebaud’s “Candy Apple.”
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, September 17, 2020