Wittgenstein: Education as (Dog) Obedience Training ?!

I’ve been revising a paper for Phenomenology and Practice, and was disturbed to learn that Wittgenstein can be read as urging punishment and conditioning for education in ways that would have made the crudest behaviourist blush!

It all goes back to the German term Wittgenstein used for what his translator (one of his students, Gertrude Anscombe) consistently and problematically renders as “training.” This word is “Abrichten,” and here’s how the standard German (Duden) dictionary defines it:

“(an animal, esp. a dog) to train for particular action and abilities; dressage.”

That’s it: there’s nothing about humans, children, or “education” in any nuanced sense.

Here’s how Luntley 2008 explains all of this:

“…it is a feature of much recent work on Wittgenstein that it has been based on reading in translation, written in English, and undertaken by non-native speakers of German. Wittgenstein not only uses ‘Abrichtung’ and ‘abrichten’ throughout his original ms. [manuscripts] where the translators have ‘training’, he also uses it to translate texts into German that were originally written in English: e.g. the Brown Book. Now, as Huemer points out, ‘the German “abrichten” is exclusively used for animals’ (p. 207); it refers to a process that ‘sets up stimulus-response patterns that do not involve any intellectual activity on the side of the trainee’ (p. 208). Indeed, ‘Abrichtung’ has a ‘very brutal tone’ and a native German speaker would ‘never use the term for children’ …Any account of Wittgenstein on training must confront this issue and explain what is going on in the text when Wittgenstein assaults the reader with inappropriate language” (pp. 296-297).

In the light of all of this, some well-known quotes take on new significance, and others just make more sense (perhaps unfortunately):

“Following a rule is analogous to obeying an order. We are trained [conditioned, as through reward and punishment] to do so; we react to an order in a particular way.” (Philosophical Investigations, § 206)


When a person is trained in the use of the word “there”, the teacher will in training him make the pointing gesture and pronounce the word “there”. (The Brown Book § 20)


“educators ought to remember… Any explanation has its foundation in training [as in dressage or animal conditioning]” (Zettel § 419)

This puts into question writings by Winch (1998) and some others on Wittgenstein and education. As for Wittgenstein actually practicing education as obedience training, this is documented, and almost got him into serious trouble during his days as an elementary teacher in Austria.

A fascinating thinker becomes more darkly so.

ADDENDUM: I’ve been discussing these issues with Rainer Leschke and Wolfgang Huemer, and have learned that besides being a term reserved for discipline of animals, “Abrichtung” also has the connotation of “breaking the will” of the animal involved. For example, the term would be used for police or fierce guard dogs, but not typically for training a family pet. This connotation has not been mentioned in the few English-language discussions of this term. Wolfgang Huemer suggests that Wittgenstein used Abrichten, at least in part, for its effect: “Since readers will be surprised that the author uses the word for children, they might be more likely to pay attention to the distinction between Abrichtung and explanation.”

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