Wittgenstein's "Lost" Years as an Elementary School Teacher
For Ludwig Wittgenstein, the war ended in November 1918 when the decrepit Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated. After serving with courage and distinction for over four years, he was taken prisoner and spent the next nine months in a relatively mild Italian captivity. The war had been brutal for the Wittgenstein family. His brother Paul lost an arm and suffered through the misery of internment at a Russian POW camp in Siberia. Another brother, Kurt, was even less fortunate. He killed himself at the war’s end when his men refused to obey his orders. Kurt was the third of Wittgenstein’s ill-fated brothers to commit suicide (Monk 158). Wittgenstein survived, but the experience permanently transformed him. He would come close to suicide during his first year back.
After release from the POW camp in the summer of 1919, he returned home to Vienna. Like many vets, he found reintegration back into society challenging. The transition was even more problematic for Wittgenstein, a man prone to violent mood swings and debilitating bouts of deep depression throughout his life. What was he going to do now? Returning to his pre-war life wasn’t an option. The young genius who’d taken Cambridge by storm before the war, wearing fine suits, expensive ties, and renting entire rail carriages for his personal use, that man was gone. Wittgenstein was lucky; he had options. Even after the war, the family wealth remained largely intact so he could have easily stepped back into that former life. His mentor at Cambridge, none other than Bertrand Russell, still believed his star pupil was a once-in-a-century genius destined to transform philosophy. He hoped Wittgenstein would return to Cambridge and pick up where he left off.
And yet, Wittgenstein wanted nothing more to do with his family’s money. Moreover, the thought of returning to Cambridge to do philosophy held no appeal for him. When it came to his own intellectual capabilities, Wittgenstein was a pendulum that swung between blunt arrogance and crippling doubt. That blunt arrogance triumphed when it came to the philosophy he’d been doing on his own during the war. He felt that his philosophical essay (later published as the famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) he’d written over the last six years had resolved all 2,500 years of philosophy’s issues in less than 80 pages (spoiler alert, he hadn’t). Therefore, he felt his work in philosophy was now complete (spoiler alert, it wasn’t), time to move on to something else.
That’s where we find Wittgenstein in the summer of 1919, home from the war, existentially adrift and depressed to the point of suicide. In this dark mood, he determined to make radical changes in his life.
First, within weeks after his return, he divested himself of the wealth he’d inherited. He had discovered during his years at war that the simple life of a soldier suited him well, and the idea of returning to a life of opulent luxury revolted him. He lived the rest of his life in simple, austere poverty.
Second, with the money gone, he meant to earn an honest living by getting credentialed as an elementary school teacher. The idea had popped into his head at the POW camp after talking to Ludwig Hänsel, a school teacher and friend. The idea of shaping young minds in an impoverished setting appealed to Wittgenstein as a helpful way to quiet the turmoil of his troubled mind. And finally, he still needed to get the philosophical essay published that he’d spent so much heart and soul writing. That would prove frustratingly difficult.
As we'll see, Wittgenstein had some talent for teaching. But it’s not enough to say he was a good teacher. That was true for some, at least for the brightest and most outgoing who took to his teaching style. He was a bit of a monster for others, especially the girls and the slow learners.
This latter fact is uncomfortable and gets too little attention in the literature covering Wittgenstein's life. It’s often glossed over entirely in favor of a more hagiographic mythologizing that idealizes him as a strikingly handsome, iconoclastic mystic with piercing blue eyes, the tortured genius who dwelled in the solitude of a cabin high above the Norwegian fjord so he could do philosophy. How does that not capture the imagination?
And now add in all the rest of this fascinating man’s biography: he was a soldier, a millionaire, a pauper, a monastery gardener twice, an architect, a humble hospital porter, a Cambridge Don of Philosophy, a hermit, an icon, and a repressed homosexual; put all those together and you have the ingredients for what everyone loves: a Very Interesting Man, and when you have a Very Interesting Man (VIM) - and Ludwig Wittgenstein remains Philosophy’s VIM par excellence – then, all is forgiven, nothing else matters, the myth is enough, and all the other icky stuff can be skipped over as irrelevant. Wittgenstein’s reputation deserves a corrective to this one-sided shallow hero worship that emphasizes style over substance. Remember that behind the myth was a man, and a deeply flawed one. Wittgenstein would have agreed.
Wittgenstein’s decision to become a schoolteacher shocked his upper-class family. A Wittgenstein did not stoop to mix with the unwashed masses, at least not like this. No, they wined and dined with the finest of Viennese society. Before the war, the Wittgenstein family patronized artists like Gustav Klimt; they hosted musical soirees at the palatial family estate that composers like Brahms and Mahler attended.
What a Wittgenstein did not do was sleep like a janitor in the kitchen of some rural elementary school as Ludwig did at his first school in Trattenbach. It wasn’t just an issue of social class consciousness either. Friends and family alike thought he was crazy to waste his genius on students who’d never do anything with a proper education beyond milk cows, shovel manure, and sow crops.
Wittgenstein’s older sister Hermine described teaching impoverished provincial children as akin to using a precision instrument for opening crates. It’s an apt analogy about why her brother wasn’t a good fit for teaching.
But Wittgenstein responded with his own metaphor, one that gets at the heart of his inner turmoil during this time, “You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet” (Monk 170).
Wittgenstein's mind was made up, even if it meant being like a scalpel prying open crates. He felt he had something to offer, that teaching would soothe his mind and give him a simple purpose. This was nothing new. He’d enlisted and fought in the war, not because of any feelings of patriotism or duty, for these were alien concepts to Wittgenstein, but to give his life meaning by putting it in constant danger.
Teaching was a continuation of this search for meaning. For Wittgenstein, there was no meaning in living anesthetized by the wealth and luxury of Viennese society. Only through the embrace of suffering and poverty could this be found. The ascetic lifestyle he became famous for was inspired by his wartime reading of Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief in particular, but also Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamozov, with the character of the saintly monk, the Elder Zossima, making a lasting impression on Wittgenstein.
Alexander Waugh captures the impact of Tolstoy on Wittgenstein: “The Gospel in Brief offered to Ludwig, as a young man crippled by conflicting urges to narcissism and self-loathing, was the long-sought opportunity for radical self-improvement—a thorough rinsing of all those parts of his personality that he found most distasteful, and an opportunity for conscious self-elevation and transfiguration from mere mortal to immortal Jesus-like, prophet-like, perfect human being” (Waugh 101).
Tolstoy also preached a stripped-down version of Christianity, emphasizing a simple life among the common folk and a renunciation of wealth and privilege. Wittgenstein’s decision to become a teacher at a rural elementary school seemed the best way to live out this Tolstoyan ideal. He hoped to teach his pupils the beauty of mathematics, the wonder of poetry, and the depth of German literature. He would read them Bible stories and they’d sit in attentive awe. With one notable exception discussed below, he wasn’t interested in preparing them to attend the university or escape the villages. No, Wittgenstein held a deep suspicion of higher education that never really went away. He only meant to instill a love of learning and culture for its own sake (Monk 193).
A worthy goal indeed.
“Lord” Wittgenstein Trains to Become a Teacher
In the autumn of 1919, Wittgenstein was a thirty-year-old combat veteran and son of one of Austria’s wealthiest families attending lectures at the teaching college in an auditorium full of recent high school graduates training for the same purpose. After giving away his wealth, he moved out of the family estate and into a spartan room near the college. To say Wittgenstein had little in common with his fellow students in terms of life experience would be an understatement. The humiliation of his position at the school bothered him.
“The benches are full of boys of 17 and 18 and I’ve reached 30. This leads to some very funny situations – and many very unpleasant ones too. I often feel miserable” (Monk 172).
He also found it hard to escape the celebrity of his family name, synonymous as it was with Viennese wealth and high culture. An instructor at the college once asked him if he was related to the Wittgenstein family everybody knew. He replied 'yes' but lied and said he was not that closely related (Monk 173). Later, he applied for and got his first teaching job under a false name but turned it down when they discovered his true identity as an illustrious Wittgenstein.
His brother Paul chastised him for this little deception, telling him that “anybody bearing our name and whose elegant and gentle upbringing can be seen a thousand paces off, would not be identified as a member of our family” (Waugh 143). Paul told him that being honest about who he was “would have taken the sting out of the exaggerated rumors right from the start” (Waugh 143). Paul was incorrect on this. Rumors and misunderstandings about Wittgenstein, the supposedly rich and aristocratic “Fremd” (foreigner), plagued him throughout his teaching career.
His teacher friend from the POW camp, Ludwig Hänsel, encouraged Wittgenstein as he made his way through the teaching program. When he worried about how the faculty viewed his progress, Hänsel sent glowing reviews from his instructors, though one wonders how much the celebrity of his family name skewed their assessments. Hänsel reported, "The professor of psychology said with great self-satisfaction that he was pleased with the noble Lord Wittgenstein” (Monk 189).
Of course he was.
Distraction and Frustration: Publishing the Tractatus
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"
- Wittgenstein's last line from the Tractatus
Wittgenstein’s awkwardness at the teaching college was not the only stressor during this period. Finding a publisher for the Tractatus was proving difficult. It had been a year since he finished the essay’s draft. Still, he remained convinced its contents had resolved all philosophy’s problems. The first readers were not so sure. You see, no one seemed able to grasp what in the hell he’d written. Gottlob Frege, the giant of German logic and an early mentor to Wittgenstein, found himself bogged down in the first few pages by Wittgenstein’s undefined jargon. He wasn’t shy in voicing his displeasure, writing as if he were addressing a student who had turned in a poorly reasoned essay.
Frege was baffled. “You see, from the very beginning I find myself entangled in doubt as to what you want to say” (Monk 163). And, “Of the treatise itself I can offer no judgment, not because I am not in agreement with its contents, but rather because the content is too unclear to me” (Monk 175). He took Wittgenstein to task for not defining his terms, a critique that anyone who has read the Tractatus will understand.
What was the Tractatus trying to say, anyway? Why all the confusion? Here Wittgenstein clarifies as only he could, that is to say, by not really clarifying anything.
“The book will…draw a limit to thinking, or rather – not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought). The limit can…only be drawn in language and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense” (Tractatus 27).
Clear? No? It gets worse. Much worse. He was going to speak of things about which we cannot speak, and it would be nonsense because we cannot speak about what’s unspeakable though he was sure going to try—a lot. If you think I’m oversimplifying what is widely regarded as one of the foundational texts in analytical philosophy, perhaps I am, but not by much. Here’s Wittgenstein’s famous conclusion for the Tractatus.
“My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Tractatus 6.54-7.0).
Such a finale must be confounding to any reader who just plowed through the preceding 80 pages of gnomic pronouncements, vague assertions, and undefined jargon. No worries, never mind, it was all unspeakable nonsense.
And Frege wasn’t an outlier either. His friend and mentor, Bertrand Russell, the very man who was convinced Wittgenstein was the one to take philosophy to the next level, tried very hard to understand the Tractatus. He got further than Frege, but not by much. Russell, who was certainly not a stupid man, developed reservations about the work that sounded similar to Frege’s. His attempts at fully understanding Wittgenstein settled into a complicated mix of awe, doubt, and perplexity.
Russell wrote, “I am sure you are right in thinking the book of first-rate importance. But in places it is obscure through brevity” (Monk 166). Moreover, Russell found the mysticism and paradox lurking in the final passages of the Tractatus troubling. Logic was supposed to cut through that hocus pocus, clarify reality, and say what can be said. Wittgenstein had disconcertingly gone down another road, arguing that there are things that cannot be said or explained by logic. There’s a horizon beyond which our language cannot help us explain the world. When we reach that boundary, silence is the only option. Russell bristled at this assertion.
If the two foremost logicians of the era struggled with Wittgenstein’s philosophical arguments, imagine the predicament prospective publishers found themselves in. The Tractatus wasn’t a purely philosophical work, nor was it quite literary. It defied easy categorization, which made publishers nervous, especially in a challenging post-war economy that didn’t favor editorial risk-taking. After getting turned down by three other publishers for these reasons, Wittgenstein reached out to his old friend Ludwig von Ficker for help. Ficker ran a literary journal, Der Brenner, and was his last best hope to get the Tractatus published. Without having yet read the Tractatus, Ficker enthusiastically offered his help getting it published. “Rest assured, dear Mr. Wittgenstein, that I will do my best to meet your wishes.”
But this was before getting his hands on a copy of the manuscript.
Ficker’s ardor cooled noticeably after that. If scholars like Frege and Russell were lost in the thickets of Wittgenstein’s prose, Ficker never had a chance. It didn’t help that Wittgenstein had an uncanny knack for self-sabotage when he should have been self-promoting. When he sent Ficker the manuscript, He added a note with his usual blunt and condescending candor, “For you won’t – I really believe – get too much out of reading it. Because you won’t understand; the content will be strange to you." And “Therefore the book will, unless I’m quite wrong, have much to say which you want to say yourself, but perhaps you won’t notice that it is said in it” (Monk 178).
Way to sell it, Ludwig!
Ultimately, the Tractatus could only get published after Russell, an international best-seller, agreed to write the introduction. This created even more conflict because Wittgenstein hated Russell’s introduction. For one, he felt that the intro misrepresented the central argument of the Tractatus, which was a discussion of what can be expressed (or said) through language and what can only be shown (Letter Wittgenstein to Russell). In other words, how we interpret reality mediated by language and the hard limitations that come with that. Readers would first get Russell’s interpretation (a deeply flawed one in Wittgenstein’s view) before even getting to the actual text. This drove Wittgenstein nuts. He was already aware very few would understand the work on its own merits. Russell’s introduction would only sow confusion.
But there was more. Russell dared to offer some light criticisms. In truth, he found himself conflicted about the Tractatus. On the one hand, he wanted to introduce the public to the thoughts of someone he still considered a brilliant and original thinker. On the other hand, Russell found the text very problematic and couldn’t help concluding his introduction with some stinging comments about the Tractatus.
“What causes hesitation is the fact that…Mr. Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said, thus suggesting to the skeptical reader that possibly there may be some loophole through a hierarchy of languages, or by some other exit. The whole subject of ethics is placed by Mr. Wittgenstein in the mystical, inexpressible region. Nevertheless, he is capable of conveying his ethical opinions. His defense would be that what he calls the mystical can be shown, although it cannot be said. It may be that this defense is adequate, but, for my part, I confess that it leaves me with a certain sense of intellectual discomfort” (Tractatus Intro 22).
When Wittgenstein saw the German translation of the introduction, he told the German publisher, Reclam, not to include it because it created even more confusion. Reclam came back and said, ‘okay, fine, we just won’t publish at all then.’ His little essay had no commercial value without Russell’s celebrity name attached to it.
Russell, with the grace and patience of a saint, told his friend, “I don’t care twopence about the introduction, but I shall be really sorry if your book isn’t printed. May I try, in that case, to have it printed in England?” Wittgenstein replied, “You can do what you like with it” (Monk 184). With that, he threw up his arms and walked away from the whole affair, leaving it for Russell to sort out.
And so the predicament he found himself in at the end of his teaching course: his masterpiece and life’s work he’d spent six years writing, the Tractatus, which he was convinced resolved philosophy’s problems once and for all, was incomprehensible to the people he respected the most and unpublishable because of its abstruse subject matter. The search for a publisher continued, mainly because of Russell’s work behind the scenes. It was thanks to him more than its self-sabotaging author that the Tractatus was ever published.
These frustrations, combined with his isolation at the teaching college, weighed on Wittgenstein so that by May 1920, he was contemplating suicide. In a letter to his friend Engelmann, he cried out in despair. “I have had a most miserable time lately. Of course, only as a result of my own baseness and rottenness. I have continually thought of taking my own life, and the idea haunts me sometimes. I have sunk to the lowest point” (Wittgenstein Letter to Engelmann).
A second letter a few weeks later shows him still wrestling with thoughts of suicide, though by then, he’d taken a few steps back from the brink. “I know that to kill oneself is always a dirty thing to do. Surely one cannot will one’s own destruction, and anybody who has visualized what is in practice involved in the act of suicide knows that suicide is always a rushing of one’s own defenses. But nothing is worse than to be forced to take oneself by surprise. Of course it all boils down to the fact that I have no faith” (Wittgenstein Letter to Engelmann)!
This wasn’t the dramatic angst-ridden hyperbole of a lonely man trying to get attention but the despair of someone in crisis trying to find something, anything, to grab onto to keep from drowning. These letters came near the end of his lonely teaching certification program. After graduating in July 1920, he worked as a gardener at the Klosterneuburg Monastery in Vienna for a few months. He found the manual labor relaxing and rewarding, so much so that the Abbot of the monastery commented that “So I see that intelligence counts for something in gardening too” (Monk 191). But this was just a time filler before he headed out to his first teaching job in southern Austria.
Otto Glockel and the School Reform Movement
It’s worth pausing for a moment before looking at Wittgenstein’s teaching career to consider the training he received. That methodology centered on the principles of the School Reform Movement being implemented then under the leadership of the education minister, Otto Glockel. These reforms took a modern, secular approach to education. The rigid dogmas of the Hapsburg Monarchy were tossed out. Children no longer had to endure rote memorization of scripture. The Church’s obsolete approach was rejected in favor of more modern pedagogical methods based on recent advances in psychology.
What made this reform movement so radical was its emphasis on social and gender equality in the classroom. It also encouraged participatory learning methods promoting classroom dialogue (vice lectures) and direct activity. Rich and poor, boys and girls alike, now had access to a modern education. Education would no longer be the privilege of a narrow set of elites learning things with no real-world value beyond serving as gatekeepers for their social status.
Here is Glockel’s approach in his own words:
“Youth must learn to question, to doubt, to meditate— and to enjoy it— that they may not do homage to false authority! They must mature through their own thinking and their own inquiry; they must labor for and work out their own convictions and face intelligently the great problems that agitate our times. Only what the child works out for [themselves], only the knowledge [they earn] by [their] own efforts and through [their] own experience can become [their] undisputed property” (Savickey 52).
In many ways, the new approach suited Wittgenstein's teaching style perfectly. His unorthodox emphasis on doing, demonstrating, showing, questioning, and participating found enthusiastic support from the school reformers and students alike.
But in other ways, Wittgenstein’s teaching methods were oddly reactionary. Corporal punishment, previously a norm in Austrian classrooms, was less common under the Glockel system. Not so for Wittgenstein, who was known as a serial hair puller and head slapper. His excesses in this regard finally ended his teaching career in 1926.
Wittgenstein as Teacher: Off to a Good Start
So what kind of teacher was Wittgenstein? That’s a difficult question because contradiction and paradox confront us, like all things with Wittgenstein, whether in his life or philosophy.
After graduating from the teaching course in July 1920, he was set to do his probationary teaching at Maria Schultz am Semmering, a small but prosperous town south of Vienna. However, a brief survey of the village convinced him that it was unacceptable. Why, you might ask? He had noticed the town had a park and fountain, making it too ritzy for his now austere tastes. He told the incredulous headmaster, “That is not for me, I want an entirely rural affair” (Monk 193). The bemused headmaster suggested he should therefore try Trattenbach, a remote village over the hills and some miles away. And so he did just that, packing up his bags and making the hike to Trattenbach.
Trattenbach checked the poverty box for Wittgenstein. He initially liked it for its remote simplicity. The inhabitants either farmed or worked at a textile mill. We can assume there was neither park nor a fountain to corrupt the philosopher-monk. In a letter to his friend Engelmann, we get a rare bit of happy sunshine from Wittgenstein, much more upbeat than the suicidal notes he’d sent just a few months ago. He considered himself “happy in my work at school" (Monk 193). His letters to Hänsel during these early months also have a happier tone.
We get from his sister Hermine an overwhelmingly glowing assessment of Wittgenstein the teacher.
“He is interested in everything himself and he knows how to pick the most important aspects of anything and make them clear to others. I myself had the opportunity of watching Ludwig teach on a number of occasions, as he devoted some afternoons to the boys in my occupational school. It was a marvelous treat for all of us. He did not simply lecture, but tried to lead the boys to the correct solutions 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 he aroused was enormous. Even the ungifted and usually unattentive 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” (Monk 194).
Let’s take Hermine’s account at face value as testimony that her brother’s classrooms were magical places of healthy learning. But this was not from Wittgenstein’s classroom but a cameo appearance at the boy’s school his sister ran in Vienna. The reality of teaching in a small village was much different for several reasons.
First was the vast gulf between him and the locals. He came from a cultivated and wealthy background that the average small-town Austrian would have found difficult to relate to. Moreover, Wittgenstein was an eccentric person even among his own class. It’s true that among the Cambridge elites, those eccentricities would later foster a small, dedicated cult of followers who hung on his every word as if from a prophet. But in southern Austria, these eccentricities were not so endearing.
The townspeople wondered why a Viennese aristocrat of apparent great wealth chose to live in ostentatious poverty among them while at the same time making no effort to get along with his neighbors or understand their ways. Wittgenstein asked one of his colleagues at Trattenbach, Georg Berger, what the locals thought of him. Berger replied, "the villagers take you to be a rich baron” (Monk 194).
Still, it was baffling to them, this apparent Viennese aristocrat living in the school kitchen like an ordinary janitor. Why? What for when he could do otherwise? So what was the point of it all? Always sooner rather than later, his Tolstoyan fantasy of rural living collapsed on the dull reality of how it was to live in a small village where intellectual stimulation was hard to find. Once the fantasy dissolved, he had nothing but contempt for those around him.
After a year of teaching at Trattenbach, he wrote to Russell in October 1921, “I am still at Trattenbach, surrounded, as ever, by odiousness and baseness. I know that human beings on the average are not worth much anywhere, but here they are much more good-for-nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere. I will perhaps stay on in Trattenbach for the present year but probably not any longer, because I don’t get on well here even with the other teachers (perhaps that won’t be better in another place)” (Letter Wittgenstein to Russell).
No, indeed, it wouldn’t be better in another place. To quote the wisdom of Buckeroo Banzai, no matter where you go, there you are, and that was Wittgenstein’s case in particular. Wherever he went, whether a remote Austrian village or posh Cambridge, he was usually miserable and surrounded by people he despised.
No matter where you go, there you are, Ludwig.
That said, no matter how bad the relations became with the locals, he was always a professional and took his teaching responsibilities seriously. He threw himself into the job and for a while, it worked. More than anything, he wanted to stimulate the same curiosity and hands-on approach to learning that he valued so highly. This was Wittgenstein at his best as a teacher. He taught anatomy by having his students assemble the skeleton of a cat. They learned astronomy by looking at the night sky rather than reading about it from a book. He took his classes on field trips to the surrounding forests so they could learn botany. A field trip to Vienna demonstrated the basics of architecture and building styles (Monk 195). Wittgenstein’s teaching methods emphasized active learning and direct experience of the subject matter as much as possible.
Among the brightest kids in Wittgenstein’s classroom - and the brightest were always boys – Wittgenstein devoted his time and attention. Take the case of Karl Gruber, which reveals one side of Wittgenstein’s approach to pedagogy, which was at once well-meaning and smothering. Gruber came from one of the poorest families in the village. He was also one of the most gifted students in class. Wittgenstein took it upon himself to make a project out of the young man. Gruber related years later that he initially found algebra difficult: “I could not grasp how one could calculate using letters of the alphabet” (Monk 202). But things changed after a Wittgenstein slap knocked some sense into him.
Gruber responded to the slap by buckling down and was soon the best kid in the class at Algebra. Wittgenstein saw potential and responded by looking for ways to further the boy’s education beyond what he could hope for in Trattenbach. He began tutoring Gruber after class and had hopes of helping him further his education in Vienna. Every day after class, from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Wittgenstein ran the boy through an intense regimen of additional studies in mathematics, Latin, geography, and history.
The plan was for Gruber to get up to speed enough to get accepted into one of the advanced Viennese grammar schools. This was his ticket out of Trattenberg. If he managed to get accepted, he had arranged for the boy to live with Hermine at Chez Wittgenstein in Vienna. But this was a problem for the proud young man. He later recalled, “I didn’t want to beg for alms and would have felt myself to be receiving charity. I would have come there as a ‘poor chap’ and would have had to say thank you for every bit of bread” (Monk 209).
Maybe that was the reason. But maybe it was as Ray Monk speculates, that the boy was simply worn out from the effort of studying with Wittgenstein for three and a half hours a day. These sessions were undoubtedly an intense, stressful affair with a demanding instructor who had little patience for slow learners. Wittgenstein never operated on ‘easy mode,’ and he didn’t let those around him do so either. Two other factors also probably wore the young man down. He was also working in the local factory, and his parents were not supportive of the extra study hours. These additional factors likely contributed to the boy’s decision to quit.
And so it happened in February 1921, Gruber came and sheepishly turned in his books, telling Wittgenstein that he didn’t want to continue his studies. This was a huge disappointment for Wittgenstein, who told Russell in a letter: “It turns out he has no enthusiasm to go on with his studies…Of course he has no conception of where he is now heading. i.e. he does not know how bad a step he is taking” (Monk 209).
Wittgenstein's Brutal Side: Corporal Punishment in the Classroom
Wittgenstein dedicated himself to his craft, working hard to be the best teacher he could be. Accounts like Hermine’s above and recollections of many of his students highlight how effective that could be in practice. He really could be an excellent teacher. But Wittgenstein also had bad days, and we can’t ignore or dismiss them either. If he could be a phenomenal teacher, he could also be abusive. He had little patience for slow or unenthusiastic learners or anyone who didn’t see the world his way. Not every student responded the way Karl Gruber initially did. Many struggled and resisted; they were indifferent to subjects like math that didn’t interest them and did just enough to get by.
Wittgenstein must have struggled to deal with classroom intransigence without resorting to corporal punishment. His natural moodiness and impatience for average intellects turned him into an intimidating and frightening figure, prone to slaps and hair pulling when his students didn’t respond accordingly. Here was another side of Wittgenstein as a school teacher: the tyrant and abuser. Stories from former pupils tell similar tales of frequent ear-boxing (Ohrfeige) and hair-pulling (Haareziehen).
One can see a pattern emerge as Wittgenstein’s six-year teaching career unfolded. He’d start teaching someplace. At first, all was well. The locals were bemused but tolerant of “Lord” Wittgenstein’s eccentricities while he was able initially to maintain his naïve Tolstoyan ideal of rural peasant virtue. But this short honeymoon soon soured on both sides, with the parents unifying in their dislike of the “foreign” teacher and his teaching methods. The feeling was mutual, with Wittgenstein despising the petty, small-minded ignorance of the rural village. In the end, the mutual animosity between him and the community became unbearable. Then Wittgenstein moved on and hoped (less so each time) that the next place would be better.
And so it went: He taught at Trattenbach from 1920-1922, describing himself as surrounded by “odiousness and baseness” and the locals as “much more good for nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere” (Letter Wittgenstein to Russel). Finally, he could take no more and transferred to nearby Hassbach in September 1922. There he only lasted a month. Before even starting, he already hated the place, telling his friend Engelmann that he “had a most disagreeable impression of the new environment there (teachers, parish priest, etc.). God knows how this is going to work out! ? ! They are not human at all but loathsome worms” (Letter Wittgenstein to Engelmann).
He moved on again. Two months later, he started at the primary school in Puchberg, where he stayed for the next year and a half. As usual, the villagers disgusted him. He told Russell they were not people but one-quarter animal and three-quarters human (Monk 212). In September 1924, he switched to the school at Otterthal, where he stayed until April 1926, when it all unraveled in scandal. From the start at Otterthal, we find Wittgenstein again venting about the low caliber of humanity surrounding him. “I suffer much from the human, or rather inhuman, beings with whom I live – in short it is all as usual” (Monk 228).
In retrospect, how could it have been otherwise? His atrocious interpersonal skills and tone-deafness at understanding his surroundings negated whatever natural gifts he had as a teacher. After all, his students were twelve and thirteen-year-old working-class kids, not silver-spooned Cambridge gentlemen who had benefited from the best preparatory educations money could buy (much as he had too). No matter. The precision instrument was going to open those crates, one goddamn way or another.
And when it came to math, Wittgenstein seems to have suffered a bit from the curse of knowledge. He loved math and was naturally gifted at it. He demanded much of himself and expected no less from his students. But he simply didn’t know how to convey that knowledge and passion to average students beginning at such a basic level. He always raced too far ahead for all but the most gifted students and had little tolerance for the laggards.
Even worse for those struggling, each dread day started with two hours of math, often taught at a level far beyond what most of his students could understand. This set the stage for conflict in the classroom and with parents too. As biographer Ray Monk relates, “For some pupils, the girls especially, the first two hours of the day were remembered with horror for years afterwards” (Monk 196).
One girl weak in math recalled that Wittgenstein once pulled her hair so hard that when she combed it later, large clumps of it came out. These weren’t isolated incidences either. Stories of Wittgenstein’s abuses in the classroom are sobering for those who prefer the myth of the tortured mystic genius destined to birth brilliance for the greater good of Knowledge. Yet this less idealized and more brutish version of Wittgenstein was the one teaching these young children.
The abuse of the girls particularly enraged parents, but for other reasons. It went something like this: Girls weren’t expected to be good at math, after all, and so yanking their hair out was seen by many parents as excessive (Monk 196). Slap the boys if they’re naughty; that’s fine, but leave the poor girls alone. They can’t help being terrible at math. They’re just girls. But Wittgenstein was an equal opportunity dealer when it came to corporal punishment. At Ottenthal, Wittgenstein had slapped one of his students, Hermine Piribauer, the daughter of a local farmer, so hard that she bled behind her ears. Herr Piribauer hated Wittgenstein for such abuses in the classroom (Monk 233). Hermine did too. Can you really blame them?
But more on them later.
Corporal punishment for maintaining discipline in an unruly classroom was not unheard of, though it was on the wane with the implementation of Glockel’s reforms. But an “everyone was doing it at this time” excuse doesn’t get Wittgenstein off the hook. The Glockel-driven training he’d received sought a more modern and humane approach where students were encouraged to learn by doing. The teacher’s role was to facilitate learning, not to beat the subject matter into the students through fear and intimidation. Wittgenstein embraced and generally excelled at this learning-by-doing approach. It came naturally to him, which makes the frequent resort to physical abuse all the more confounding.
Second, Wittgenstein’s own childhood schooling wasn't filled with scenes of classroom violence. On the contrary, it was one of incredible privilege. Until he was fourteen, he had the best tutors money could buy. While later attending a Realschule in Linz for three years (briefly with none other than Adolf Hitler), there’s no evidence his teachers engaged in excessive corporal punishment in the classroom. Interestingly, Wittgenstein’s grades from the Realschule imply the same unimpressive mediocrity that aggravated him so much in his own classrooms (Monk 15).
Wittgenstein Gets Published and the Tractatus Gets Traction
Several things are worth noting during the later years (1923-1926) of his teaching career. He published his second (and last during his life) book, a “Dictionary for Elementary Schools.” Consistent with the Glockel program of learning by doing, this dictionary was an aid for students in figuring out for themselves how to spell words. Putting the book together provided Wittgenstein with valuable insights on how children learn language, insights which informed his later philosophy. District School Inspector Eduard Buxbaum’s report to the provincial board of education for lower Austria was less than enthusiastic with the draft manuscript and preface Wittgenstein submitted for publication.
Buxbaum’s lukewarm endorsement ended with the opinion that the book’s current state made it of little use in Austria’s rural classrooms. Nevertheless, the book was published in 1926 after edits were made addressing the Inspector’s concerns. Once published, Wittgenstein’s largely forgotten second book enjoyed some limited success for a few years before becoming a footnote in his biography (Monk 226-228).
More importantly, the Tractatus, finally published back in 1922 thanks to the tireless efforts of Russell, began drawing attention in the academic community. At Vienna University in 1922, the mathematician Hans Hahn put together a seminar on the Tractatus. This caught the attention of Moritz Schlick, the titular head of the famous Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists. The same thing happened in England at Cambridge, where the book was also attracting the attention of philosophers. The Tractatus was catching on.
Meanwhile, as Wittgenstein toiled in misery down in Puchberg, a quiet campaign began to attract him back to Cambridge. John Maynard Keynes spearheaded this effort from a distance while Frank Ramsey did so in person. Ramsey became one of the Tractatus's earliest and most perceptive students, and this drew Wittgenstein’s attention. Ramsey deeply delved into the book and became a critical early Tractatus explainer. His review in Mind noted the revolutionary potential of the work to transform traditional philosophy. At the same time, he put forward some pointed criticisms which caught Wittgenstein’s attention, so much so that he invited Ramsey to Puchberg where they spent two weeks going over the Tractatus, line by agonizing line.
When he arrived, Ramsey was somewhat taken aback by Wittgenstein’s dreary living conditions. “He is very poor and seems to lead a dreary life having only one friend here, and being regarded by most of his colleagues as a little mad” (Monk 216). Still, two weeks was enough to convince Ramsey (like Russell before) that he was dealing with a first-rate genius. “He is great. I used to think Moore [another prominent Cambridge philosopher] a great man but beside W” (Monk 217)! Ramsey later spent time wining and dining with the Wittgenstein family in Vienna, where he was stunned by the family’s wealth and the backstory of Wittgenstein’s self-imposed rejection of it.
Now with a better understanding of Wittgenstein's pedigree and personality, Ramsey wrote to Keynes on the necessity of getting him out of Puchberg and back into philosophy where his true talents were. “But while he is teaching here [Puchberg] I don’t think he will do anything, his thinking is so obviously frightfully uphill work as if he were worn out” (Letter Ramsey to Keynes).
But luring the great genius back to England wouldn’t be that easy. Wittgenstein demanded that Cambridge give him a Ph.D. for the Tractatus without going through the usual residency and thesis requirements for obtaining such a degree. Well, okay, Ramsey replied, that was possible, but he’d have to come back to Cambridge for at least a year of study to make that happen. He even offered to help find lodging and ease his transition back into academic society, something Wittgenstein dreaded.
Keynes tried to entice Wittgenstein back during the summer break by offering to pay his expenses. After much back and forth, Wittgenstein finally visited England in August 1925. The trip was a success. After the lonely slog of living with country peasants for the last four years, Wittgenstein enjoyed interacting with people familiar with his work - however imperfectly - and who were willing to discuss various other topics in philosophy. The trip was like pouring fresh water on a parched plant. Wittgenstein came back invigorated by the experience. Not surprisingly, he learned the simple truth that intelligent and cultivated people need other intelligent and cultivated people to talk to, that surrounding oneself with those who are neither is nothing but a form of social masochism.
But it was not to be, not quite yet. The social masochism and the suffering it imposed were, for Wittgenstein, part of the point of the whole endeavor. Upon his return to lower Austria, he recommitted himself to teaching but with the caveat of giving England a try if worse should come to worse (Monk 230-231).
That wouldn’t take long.
By late 1925, Wittgenstein was probably already thinking of changing careers. The new teaching position at Ottenthal was the same as the previous one had been, that is to say, miserable. As usual, he couldn’t get along with those around him. The recent summer trip to England served as a contrast to the misery of his current circumstances. He told Keynes, “If I leave off teaching I will probably come to England and look for a job there, because I am convinced that I cannot find anything at all possible in this country” (Letter Wittgenstein to Keynes).
In any case, it all came to a head that next April when Wittgenstein’s classroom abuse finally went too far. One of his students was an eleven-year-old named Josef Haidbauer. Haidbauer’s father had died and his mother scraped by working as a live-in maid for a local farmer named Piribauer. Josef, a sickly boy who died of leukemia a few years later, was one of the slower kids in class. And as we’ve already seen, Wittgenstein had no patience for dullards. One day his impatience got the better of him and he slapped the boy several times on the side of his head so hard that he knocked him unconscious. Wittgenstein panicked, dismissed the class, and carried the boy to the headmaster’s office where a doctor was called.
Mr. Piribauer, you'll recall, was the father of one of Wittgenstein’s other victims, Hermine Piribauer. He had already heard what happened from one of the kids in the class. He rushed to the school and angrily confronted Wittgenstein in the hallway. He later recalled shouting at him, “I called him all the names under the sun. I told him he wasn’t a teacher, he was an animal-trainer! And I was going to fetch the police right away” (Monk 233). In any event, the town’s one police officer was not in and Wittgenstein was able to flee town that night. He resigned two days later.
There was a trial and a psychiatric examination was ordered, both great humiliations to Wittgenstein and his family. The clueless District School Inspector, Wilhelm Kundt, didn’t think an isolated incident like this warranted punishment and even tried to persuade Wittgenstein to stay on as a teacher. Wittgenstein declined, finally deciding after all this time that maybe teaching was not the right fit after all. No doubt that was true, but so was the frightening prospect of running into vengeful Herr Piribauer again. No, going back to Ottenthal was clearly out of the question.
In any case, the trial acquitted him, mainly because he lied about the extent of corporal punishment in his classrooms. The Haidbauer beating was hardly an isolated incident but a pattern of abuse that Wittgenstein had frequently practiced in his classrooms throughout his teaching career. While he dreaded the prospect of a psychiatric exam, there’s no evidence one ever took place. Waugh speculates that Wittgenstein’s wealthy and influential siblings quietly worked behind the scenes to make the case go away (Waugh 162). Sometimes it’s good to have friends and family in high places, even if you don’t want them. The whole situation devastated Wittgenstein, who felt immense embarrassment and lasting guilt.
A Curious Epilogue
“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.”
John Maynard Keynes
His teaching career in tatters, Wittgenstein tried to move on. He began gardening again at a monastery in Huttendorf outside of Vienna, taking up residence in the tool shed for three months (Monk 234). He also worked as an assistant architect in the design of his sister’s house. Most importantly, he slowly got back into philosophy, his true passion, whether he wanted to admit it or not. His discussions with Frank Ramsey and Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, had convinced him that the Tractatus had some significant flaws and that it had not resolved all of philosophy’s problems in 80 pages.
And so God finally returned to Cambridge in 1929 on that 5.15 train, much to the delight of Keynes, whose campaign to woo him back had finally borne fruit. He was awarded that Ph.D. he wanted so much after making a perfunctory defense of his 'thesis,’ the seven-year-old Tractatus. He did so before his old, now estranged friend and mentor, Bertrand Russell, and Cambridge professor G.E. Moore. Flawed or not, many already viewed the Tractatus as a philosophical classic, and Wittgenstein’s reputation exploded during the 1930s as a result.
Though he never published anything else in his lifetime (d.1951), his acolytes took good notes and published them under his name. Thus we got the Blue and Brown books and the posthumous Philosophical Investigations. Meanwhile, the Haidbauer Affair was quietly forgotten by everyone but Wittgenstein. Still, the unresolved guilt weighed heavily on him. He needed resolution through absolution.
A curious thing happened a decade later as Wittgenstein reached the pinnacle of his reputation. Everyone else may have forgotten about Offenthal, but he hadn’t. In the depths of the alpine winter, he trekked back to the town where his teaching career had ended in disgrace. The villagers of Ottenthal were astounded to see the man who had fled in the night ten years earlier show up at their doorsteps with his hat in his hand. We know he visited at least four of his former students (maybe more), that he humbly apologized for his past behavior, and begged their pardon for what he had done to them. Some took this gesture generously and accepted his apology. Georg Stangel recalled:
“I myself was not a pupil of Wittgenstein’s, but I was present when shortly before the war Wittgenstein visited my father’s house to apologize to my brother and my father. Wittgenstein came at midday, at about 1 o’clock, into the kitchen and asked me where Ignaz is. I called my brother, my father was also present. Wittgenstein said that he wanted to apologize if he had done him an injustice. Ignaz said that he had no need to apologize, he had learnt well from Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein stayed for about an hour and mentioned that he also wanted to go to Gansterer and Goldberg to beg pardon in a similar way” (Monk 371).
So far, so good. But not every home was so welcoming. At the Piribauer’s, his apologies to Hermine (recall, he’d walloped her so hard she bled behind her ears) were contemptuously rebuffed. She listened to Wittgenstein and then dismissed him with a disdainful “ja, ja,” (yeah, yeah, whatever).
Why did he put himself through this? No one expected it, and no one else even cared much all these years later. But Wittgenstein never forgot the moral cowardice of the lie at the trial and the failure to take responsibility for his actions. Going back and apologizing took courage and humility, a chance to clean the slate and redeem his past moral failure.
Ray Monk speculates that the humiliation of reopening the wound years later, of begging in person for forgiveness, was necessary to clear the air and allow him to move on with a clear conscience. “The point was not to hurt his pride, as a form of punishment; it was to dismantle it – to remove a barrier, as it were, that stood in the way of decent and honest thought. If he had wronged the children of Otterthal, then he ought to apologize to them” (Monk 371). Not apologizing would have been an act of moral cowardice to Wittgenstein, which was something he could no longer live with.
All this shows the complexity of Wittgenstein’s character. He could make grand moral gestures like this, but he could also be petty and vindictive. He was both gracious and contemptuous to those around him. He hated himself as much as others. He was rarely happy, though a loyal band of followers loved him no matter his flaws, or perhaps because of them. No doubt he was almost always the smartest man in the room, but his prickly nature doomed him to struggle his entire life with interpersonal relations. His philosophy sought to find clarity in language and to elucidate truths from it while ironically writing some of the most incomprehensible prose in philosophy, and that’s saying something.
Still, the contradictions of genius are compelling narratives because they highlight the complexities of the human condition, which in this case reveal a man of top-shelf intelligence balanced out by some deeply debilitating flaws. This was certainly the case with Wittgenstein, making him a Very Interesting Man indeed, one whose biography makes it hard to look away, even if we’re unable to make sense of his nonsense.
Monk, Ray. How to Read Wittgenstein. Kindle ed., Granta Publications, 2005.
Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. Penguin Books, 2005.
Ramsey, Frank. “Letters to Russell, Keynes, and Moore : Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1889-1951 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1 Jan. 1974, https://archive.org/details/letterstorussell00witt_0/page/116/mode/2up.
Rée, Jonathan. Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English. Yale University Press, 2019.
Savickey, Beth. Wittgenstein's Art of Investigation. ProQuest Ebook ed., Routledge, 1999.
Waugh, Alexander. The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. Kindle ed., Anchor Books Edition, 2010.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir; : Engelmann, Paul, 1891-1965 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Oxford, Blackwell, 1 Jan. 1967, https://archive.org/details/lettersfromludwi0000enge/page/32/mode/2up?view=theater.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir; : Engelmann, Paul, 1891-1965 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Oxford, Blackwell, 1 Jan. 1967, https://archive.org/details/lettersfromludwi0000enge/page/50/mode/2up.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Letters to Russell, Keynes, and Moore : Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1889-1951 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1 Jan. 1974, https://archive.org/details/letterstorussell00witt_0/page/122/mode/2up.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Letters to Russell, Keynes, and Moore : Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1889-1951 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1 Jan. 1974, https://archive.org/details/letterstorussell00witt_0/page/94/mode/2up.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Letters to Russell, Keynes, and Moore : Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1889-1951 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1 Jan. 1974, https://archive.org/details/letterstorussell00witt_0/page/94/mode/2up?view=theater.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Dover, 2003.
Tybee Island, Georgia