Child's Play


Trattenbach is a small, conservative village in the province of Lower Austria, some sixty miles south of Vienna. Outside of the region, it is almost entirely unknown, and it likely would have remained that way, were it not for the day, a century ago, that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, still wearing the army uniform of a newly vanished country, hiked through the forested foothills of the Semmering Pass and arrived there to take up a post as the local schoolmaster. 

Wittgenstein’s years as a teacher in Trattenbach (and, later, in the villages of Puchberg and Otterthal) form one of the more mythologized episodes in modern intellectual history. Susan Sontag, for example, includes them, along with Rimbaud’s abandoning poetry in favor of a mercantile career in Abyssinia and Duchamp’s abandoning art for chess, as one of the defining moments in the development of what she calls “the aesthetics of silence.” In 1921, Wittgenstein was fresh off the completion of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, arguably the most important book of philosophy written in the twentieth century. An attempt to solve all the problems of philosophy, and thus bring an end to the several-thousand-year-old discipline, the Tractatus famously concludes: 

6.54   My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.). . . 

7   What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. 

Sontag reads Wittgenstein’s decision to teach children in a poor, rural village as evidence that, for him, silence was not merely a theoretical concern but rather a spiritual “renunciation” of the utmost seriousness. “Seriousness,” she writes, “consists in not regarding art (or philosophy practiced as an art form: Wittgenstein) as… an ‘end,’ a permanent vehicle for spiritual ambition. The truly serious attitude is one that regards art as a ‘means’ to something that can perhaps be achieved only by abandoning art.”

The young Wittgenstein was, in fact, a man of many renunciations. He renounced his study of aeronautical engineering, which had pleased his overbearing industrialist father, to study philosophy and mathematical logic under Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. Three of his elder brothers would kill themselves, and throughout his youth, suicide—the renunciation of life—was never far from his thoughts. When World War I broke out, his family’s wealth and his knowledge of engineering meant that he could receive an officer’s commission, but he demanded to be sent to the front lines, near the Romanian border, as a regular infantry soldier. When he got there, he volunteered to man the observation post at night, where he was most likely to be exposed to enemy fire. His father’s death, in 1913, had made him one of the wealthiest men in Europe, but when he returned from the war, he renounced his inheritance, too, disbursing it first to a group of artists and writers, then to his remaining siblings. (“So, you want to commit financial suicide!” the notary authorizing the transaction said.) Before training to become a teacher, he toyed with the idea of working in a factory in the Soviet Union. When he declined the opportunity to return to Cambridge, it was simply a continuation of a well-established pattern: his choice of Trattenbach should be understood as class guilt dressed up as intellectual kenosis.

It is difficult to imagine someone worse suited to teaching children. Wittgenstein was impatient, bad-tempered, and fanatically unwilling to compromise. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he considered almost everyone a fool. A lifelong bachelor, he had no children himself, and between his time abroad, the war years, and his reluctance to return home to Vienna for the holidays, his contact with his young nieces and nephews was sporadic. Many of his peers puzzled over the Tractatus—the eminent logician Gottlob Frege wrote that “from the very beginning I find myself entangled in doubt as to what you want to say,” and does not seem to have gotten beyond the first page—and Wittgenstein was disinclined to respond to their requests for clarification or elaborate on the points he had made, because he regarded every sentence written as perfectly self-evident. His expectations of the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders he taught were equally high and rigid. 

He soon came into conflict with his students’ parents, whose goodwill he relied on, for reasons obvious to everybody but him. After all, a man who thinks solipsism is an important philosophical problem is likely to fail to understand the impression he makes on others; truth be told, it is easier to view the world sub specie aeternitatis than it is to view it from the perspective of your neighbor. The villagers regarded him as a rich eccentric whose mere presence was a form of condescension. They resented the hours of homework he assigned, which their children had to complete after working in the fields, leaving them exhausted. Many students were terrified of him. Corporal punishment was standard in Austrian village schools at the time, but it was meant only for disobedience. The villagers had never heard of anyone pulling their daughters’ braids or boxing their sons’ ears for failing to understand algebra. In all likelihood, no one had tried to teach their children algebra before. Wittgenstein’s time as a schoolmaster came to an ignominious end when he struck a sickly eleven-year-old in Otterthal so hard that he required medical attention, resulting in a legal hearing. He was not charged with a crime, but, to his intense shame, he had to rely on his privileged background to avoid punishment for misconduct.

Teachers always learn more from their students than their students learn from them, and Wittgenstein was no exception. Far from being a “choice of permanent silence,” as Sontag claims, Wittgenstein’s decision to teach children laid the groundwork for his return to philosophy. During his final years in Lower Austria, just as the Tractatus, after a four-year struggle to find a publisher, was finally being hailed as a watershed by philosophers in Cambridge and Vienna, Wittgenstein began to harbor grave doubts about what he had written. He had not solved the problems of philosophy, he was coming to realize, because there were no such things as philosophical problems—only philosophical abuses of ordinary language. Far from being improvements on everyday speech, logically perfect languages, such as Frege and Russell had tried to construct, were not only extremely limited; they also created more problems than they solved. In his second major book, the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” It was in Trattenbach, Puchberg, and Otterthal that he took the first steps off the slippery ice of his early work and onto the rough ground of what college course catalogs around the world today call the Later Wittgenstein. 

What exactly did Wittgenstein learn from his students? More than a few answers lie in Wörterbuch für Volksschulen (Word book for elementary schools), a curious artifact from his schoolmaster years. Wittgenstein was dissatisfied with existing spelling books, which were expensive and bulky and therefore scarce. One of the tasks in his classroom was for his students to create their own vocabulary list copied from what he wrote on the chalkboard. But production was time-consuming, and the quality was hard to control. If every student had their own slim wordbook, though, they could correct their own errors. These issues with the standard ways of making vocabulary lists led Wittgenstein to write the Wörterbuch, which was published in 1926, the year he quit teaching. For a few years it was used in Austrian village schools, and then it went out of print. 

On the face of it, the Wörterbuch is just that: a list of words. But its features are worth paying attention to, as they prefigure the radical change in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, which began in earnest upon his return to Cambridge in 1929. 

First, there is the spelling dictionary itself. At the heart of the Tractatus is a picture theory of language: propositions are meaningful to the extent that their logical structure accurately “pictures” a given “state of affairs” or situation in the world. But spelling is an entirely conventional activity. It gives standardized visual form to spoken language. In learning how to spell, rules are useful, but only up to a point: certain exceptions must simply be memorized. What makes one spelling correct has less to do with the successful application of a rule than with obedience to an external authority—like a dictionary—that is, in the end, arbitrary. (A common justification for a purely conventional activity is, ultimately, “That’s just how we do things around here!” Or, as Wittgenstein would later write, “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’… Explanations come to an end somewhere.”) Spelling was, for Wittgenstein, an entry into understanding how conventional rules—and their vagueness—were essential for language to function. This insight in turn was one of the factors that lead him to abandon the Tractatus’s picture theory of language in favor of the use theory he would go on to advance in the Investigations

Second, in organizing the entries of the Wörterbuch, Wittgenstein occasionally departs from alphabetical order. Standard alphabetical order, essential for reference dictionaries, relies too heavily on a child’s ability to abstract, so a spelling dictionary, he argued, should weigh this psychological principle against a fealty to alphabetical order. When principles clashed, he wrote in the preface, any preferences were unjustifiable; rather, he had prioritized the concrete over the abstract and imperfect pragmatism over useless perfectionism—precisely the strategies he brought to his later critique of the Tractatus

On a similarly pragmatic note, Wittgenstein chose words from the dialect of the region, terms his pupils would have encountered frequently. From der Acker, Acker, ackern, der Ackerbau (“farmland,” “arable land,” “to plough,” “farming”) and das Ausgeding (“share of property for farmers on retirement”) to der Zeisig (“siskin”) and der Zwicker (“pince-nez”), each entry provides a snapshot of everyday life in Lower Austria in the 1920s. In Wittgenstein’s selection we can already see a change of emphasis from the logical analysis of propositions in the Tractatus—revealed in which statements he classified as “sense” (true or false by virtue of their correspondence to the external world), “senseless” (always true or always false by virtue of their logical structure), or “nonsense” (neither true nor false)—to the “thick description” of actual linguistic practices that characterized his ethnological method in the Investigations. The vocabulary he chose for the Wörterbuch reflected what he would come to call “forms of life,” the complex matrix of cultural practices that formed the rules for the use of ordinary words and phrases, and which gave them their meaning.

Most crucially, the act of making the dictionary helped to shift Wittgenstein’s perspective. Although his early work comes in for scathing criticism—he wrote that “each of these sentences is the expression of a disease” when he signed Moritz Schlick’s copy of the Tractatus—the Investigations is less a point-by-point refutation of his first book than a description of how language appears when it is looked at from an entirely different point of view. The point of view, say, of a child who is learning how to speak and write.

Ever since Socrates attempted to prove to Meno that his enslaved servant could recall the geometry he had learned in a past life, Western philosophy has been interested in what today we call early childhood education. A child provides an obvious test case for theorizing these still-unanswerable questions: What in a human being is innate and what is learned? Does our flourishing require cultivation or, rather, being left to our own natural devices? The later Wittgenstein elides these positions in a unique way. On the one hand, he ignores the metaphysical or neurobiological question of innate knowledge altogether: for Wittgenstein, language acquisition remains a matter of training; cultural practices as such provide the background of intelligibility for semantic exchange. On the other hand, there was at least one cultural practice he regarded as corrupting: namely, the practice of philosophy itself.

The figure of the child appears in the first section of the Investigations. The book opens with a long quotation from Augustine’s Confessions, in which the saint describes learning how to speak. Augustine’s picture of language acquisition has a certain intuitive plausibility. It goes like this: children associate a sound with a particular object, via their parent’s gestures, to arrive at the object’s name. Next they extend the principle of naming to desires and emotions and other states of mind, and even, by imitating the movements of the parent’s mouth, learn to make these sounds themselves. Finally, they combine these sounds into increasingly complex patterns to form sentences. Voilà: language!

Wittgenstein begins the Investigations with this passage from Augustine because he had shared its assumptions about naming when he wrote the Tractatus. But Augustine’s commonsensical picture quickly falls apart under closer examination. Wittgenstein observes—much as he had about alphabetical order—that it presumes a level of abstraction that a child would not have, as though the child were visiting a “strange country” and “already had a language, only not this one.” How, for example, would they know that when a parent holds up an object and says “apple” that the parent is naming the apple? Furthermore, by this method alone, how would they know that the parent means the object rather than, say, its shape or color or quantity? How would they learn to express mental and emotional states (“I want an apple”; “I don’t like apples”), which are not visible? Finally, how would Augustine’s theory account for other activities, such as requesting (“May I have an apple?”) and commanding (“Give me an apple!”)? These are the subjects with which large parts of the Investigations are concerned.

Naming may be a basic function of language, but that does not necessarily make it foundational. Augustine’s picture of language is not wrong, per se; it is simply too circumscribed to count as a theory of language. “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication,” writes Wittgenstein, “only not everything that we call language is in this system.” He briefly sketches a “form of life” that corresponds to the following system: A and B build a structure out of stones, which consist of blocks, pillars, slabs, and beams; A teaches B the names of these stones, and when he wants B to bring him one, he calls out, “Block!” “Pillar!” “Slab!” “Beam!” “Conceive this as a complete primitive language,” Wittgenstein writes. 

Here is where Wittgenstein’s own figure of the child comes in: “We can also think of the whole process of using words… as one of those games by means of which children learn their native language. I will call these games ‘language-games’ and will sometimes speak of a primitive language as a language-game.” In other words, what we call language is not a system by which propositions picture the world, but a loose network of games. None of these language-games functions meaningfully outside the context of the whole, just as a rod and a lever are not a brake unless they are connected to each other and to the vehicle. When a child learns language, they are picking up the rules to a series of interconnected games of ramifying complexity. Whenever a child appears in the Investigations, they are invariably depicted at play. Having mastered simple games like ring-around-the-rosy or talking to dolls, Wittgenstein suggests, they might be trained to play more advanced games such as “articulating necessary and sufficient conditions,” “explaining how we know what we think we know,” and “saying how things ought to be”—games that, over the course of the past two and a half millennia, have been grouped under the vaunted term “philosophy.” And what of the meaning of meaning, that most daunting of philosophical puzzles? For Wittgenstein, it is child’s play.

My son Anton’s day care center was the first in Berlin to have a COVID case, in early March. We entered voluntary quarantine. By the time two weeks had passed, the rest of the city was in lockdown. My partner was now working from home, and when Anton didn’t insist on sitting on her lap during Zoom meetings, I looked after him and did what writing I could during his naps. The children’s cafés shut down and the playgrounds around the neighborhood were cordoned off, but we were still allowed to walk around, so I pushed his stroller beneath the windows of his grandmother’s house and my friends’ houses, and we waved and made phone calls from the street. Luckily, when the lockdown started, Anton was only eighteen months old and a late walker, so when it was cold and wet out, he didn’t feel too cooped up in our small three-room apartment. Luckier still, he wasn’t yet old enough to experience the dramatic shift in our routine as something out of the ordinary. For the time being, my partner and I escaped having to explain what a pandemic is. In March and April, he and I spent a lot of time at the window, waiting for and watching events large and small: the trash truck and the street sweeper, the sound of church bells breaking the alternation of sirens and silence.

When it came to finding ways of entertaining him, I’ll admit to being somewhat lacking in imagination. It seemed to me that during lockdown, my priority was to do whatever I could to help keep my partner and me sane, in hopes that the benefits of this would trickle down to our son, who, after all, had no expectations of what childhood is supposed to look like. Where I was concerned, this meant keeping myself entertained, and as a writer, that meant helping him with language acquisition. 

Of course, we could have consulted a parenting manual that would have told us when and how to teach language to one’s child, but to this day neither of us has been able to get through one. When I found out I was going to be a father, the only books I read on the subject—Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood—were by writers who, despite the obvious differences in our situations, at least shared my ambivalence and preoccupations, especially concerning the inevitable trade-offs between the life of the writer I had long imagined for myself and the life of a parent, which I never had. In fact, as any of my friends can tell you, a parent was something I swore, very loudly, that I’d never be—right up until the moment I changed my mind and, in so doing, became, for better or worse, a different person. How to balance your responsibility to the activity that gives your own life meaning with your responsibility to your child, who, after all, had no say in being born? How, as Wittgenstein might have put it, to move off the slippery ice of one’s ideals onto the rough ground of one’s compromises with life? That was the question, and it was not to be found in any parenting manual.

Instead, for the first time since grad school, I took my copy of Philosophical Investigations off the shelf. For fun, I modified the “builder’s language-game” for our quarantined form of life. Standing in front of a kitchen drawer, I would call out “Fork!” “Spoon!” “Pot!” “Plate!” and Anton would bring each of these from the dishwasher. (The knives and glassware I did myself.) I went around the house pointing at objects and saying what they were called, and at first I encountered all the roadblocks Wittgenstein predicted I would. Using a set of thick, water-soluble colored pencils, my partner drew the letters of the alphabet on a piece of paper, and I helped Anton memorize them. When we went on our walks through the near-deserted streets of Berlin, we stopped in front of each closed storefront, and moved on only when Anton had finished saying each of the letters on the sign. Perhaps this was not essentially different from the way anyone teaches their children the names of objects or the letters of the alphabet, but the fact that in my mind I was alluding to Wittgenstein gave it a personal significance. Anton didn’t seem bored, and I wasn’t, either, so I considered my approach a win-win.

Anton, I’m told, is verbally precocious, just as, I’m told, his parents were at his age. He has a parrot’s talent for mimicking sound. Already, he had begun to use the first-person pronoun and could translate words and short sentences between his mother’s German and my English. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud, but then, for most parents, there is no such thing as the Euthyphro dilemma: you find most things your child does lovable precisely because it is your child doing them. Still, I vowed not to draw his attention to his abilities one way or the other. Whether this was an overcorrection on my part remains to be seen. Since I’d found out I was going to be a father, Philip Larkin’s fatalistic lines had never been far from my mind: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you up with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.” 

Like time, like money, like religion, like recognition, like desire, like embodiment, intelligence is something with which one can have a healthy or an unhealthy relationship. With each of these things, I’ve come to believe, the healthiest relationship is one of respectful indifference. In the case of intelligence in particular, I’ve learned this the hard way after years of overestimating it in myself and overvaluing it in others. Intelligence is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for happiness, kindness, self-worth, or worldly success—in fact, when one’s relationship to it is unhealthy, as mine has often been, it can be detrimental to all of these. The only value intelligence has is in the pleasures it offers: the ability to become totally absorbed in the world and to be completely transported from it. Intelligence does not give life meaning; without a healthy relationship to it, as Wittgenstein could tell you, it is nothing but a curse.

Even if you thought it was a good idea to turn your child into Ludo from The Last Samurai—which, I repeat, it is not—there is no reliable way to go about it. Genius is always an exception, and the exception, by definition, resists the rule. For every Mozart, who composed his first symphony at the age of eight, for every John Stuart Mill, who could write in Latin and Greek by age three, there is a Wittgenstein. The man Bertrand Russell once described as “perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius,” and whom John Maynard Keynes called, simply, “God,” was thought of by his family, according to his biographer Ray Monk, as “one of the dullest of [their] extraordinary brood” of children. He didn’t say his first word until he was four. By his own admission, he was still struggling with spelling until the age of eighteen or nineteen.

Shortly before Anton’s second birthday, I received a package from an old publishing friend in New York to whom I’d offhandedly mentioned my parenting games during a catch-up conversation on Zoom. In it was an advance copy of Wittgenstein’s Word Book, translated for the first time into English by Bettina Funcke for the artist Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited press. It amused me that someone had gone to the trouble of publishing what was clearly a piece of ephemera. But then, with its oxblood padded cover embossed with the silhouette of a single-room schoolhouse atop an alpine foothill, its title in gold Jugendstil font, its Critical Introduction and its Translator’s Preface, along with a restored preface from Wittgenstein, the Badlands Word Book is less a contribution to Wittgenstein scholarship than an artist’s book. Wittgenstein’s carefully curated list of words becomes the vehicle for paratextual play and for Chan’s striking black-and-white illustrations, whose thick, jagged lines recall the woodcuts of the German expressionists. I liked Chan’s witty transformation of the entry for das Abendmahl (“the Last Supper”) into a rowdy children’s birthday party, with pizza and a turkey. Anton preferred the illustration for die Pflege, pflegen, der Pfleger (“care,” “to take care,” “the caretaker”), which, quite understandably, given the illustration, he misidentified as der Bär (“the bear”). As we flipped through the pages together, I noticed, with a raised eyebrow, an entry for his name, and decided, forgetting in that moment that I should have known better, to try to teach him how to write it.

I pointed at the entry in Word Book.Explaining with thoughtless excitement that the letters whose names he had already learned could be combined to form graphic representations of the sounds we spoke, I wrote the letters of his name on a piece of paper with a blue colored pencil, so he could see that the forms were the same. I gave him an empty piece of paper and watched as he looked from where my finger pointed in Word Book to the paper on which I’d written his name. As I handed him the pencil, it occurred to me that when we were through, I would have taught him the skill that formed the basis for everything I knew. Anton sprung into action—merrily drawing zigzags and squiggles and shapes so irregular that not even German has a word for them. 

Clearly, I would have to take this one step at a time. I covered the back of the sheet with A’s, saying, with each stroke, “Diagonal, diagonal, cross.” Then, placing the pencil between his thumb and forefinger, and directing his hand with my own so he’d learn the muscle movements, we filled up a second sheet. When I let go to see if the exercise had had its intended effect, Anton palmed the pencil and immediately began to cover the nearby floorboards with loops. Only now he repeated, “Diagona, diagona, cwoss!” and giggled to himself. We practiced every day for a week, for around five minutes a day, until I began to suspect that my motives had less to do with his education and more to do with my vanity than I cared to admit. With a twinge of shame, I thought again about the Larkin poem and decided Anton would learn how to write his name when he or his schoolteachers thought was the right time, not when I did. I put the Investigations back on the shelf and made space next to it for Word Book. Sometimes you have to learn over and over again what you think you already know.

Autumn came, and with it the second wave of the pandemic, whose arrival we had been dreading all summer. The government announced what it called “lockdown lite” (gallingly, Merkel used the English), which left schools and day care centers open, but which we understood to be preparation for further restrictions. Germany, which had done such a good job of managing the pandemic in March and April, seemed to have been caught flat-footed this time around. My partner returned to her home office; my attention was divided between the book I was supposed to be reviewing and the unfolding chaos surrounding the election back home in the US. With each new bit of breaking news, I oscillated between panic and apathy. From then on, the only time I was wholly absorbed in the present moment was on the playground with Anton, as we climbed, swung, slid, and shoveled sand in the lifeless gray light that turned black earlier and earlier with each passing day. 

Ten days before Christmas, we bought a box of rapid antigen tests from a doctor friend of ours, pulled Anton from his day care center, and went into self-isolation, as we had done in March, so we could spend the holidays with my mother-in-law, who lives on the other side of the neighborhood. One day my partner was making lunch, listening to the podcast of Germany’s head virologist; I was setting the table; and Anton was sitting in the dining room, contentedly scribbling on the floorboards with the remaining stub of his beloved blue pencil. As I tiptoed by him with a stack of plates in one hand and a stack of glasses in the other, I saw him leaning over two diagonal-ish blue lines that met at a point with a third long slash bisecting them. “What is that?” I asked. Anton looked at the lines and then up at me, as though he could not understand why I was asking him a question I clearly knew the answer to. “A, Papa,” he said, skeptically. “A wie Anton.” I set the plates and glasses on the floor and sat down next to him. “Could you draw another one for me?” The first could have been unintentional, I thought, a false positive. Next to the first, he drew three more lines. Rocking his body forward, he said, this time emphatically, “A! Wie Anton!” 

For a long moment, I was speechless. Looking at the two letters Anton had drawn on the floor, I felt complete and unqualified satisfaction, more satisfaction—it occurred to me, as if the thought were a piece of paper unfolding in my chest—than in the millions of letters I had combined over the course of the twelve years I had been a published author. Even though being a writer had been my personal ideal for as long as I can remember, my experiences as a writer had convinced me that satisfaction was nothing to value, nothing but a sign that, whenever I felt it, I had made some unforgivable compromise with the world. Teachers always learn more from their students than their students learn from them, and, like Wittgenstein—to whom I was drawn in my youth in part because I accepted Sontag’s romantic picture of his uncompromising, tortured life—I was no exception. I had taught Anton how to write the first letter of the alphabet, a simple thing, when all is said and done, but only after I had given up my hopes for success—indeed, only when I realized my hopes were doing more harm than good. And in the process Anton had taught me something far more valuable: moments of satisfaction are not, as I had thought, the moments when we see our hopes for the world mirrored in it, they are the moments when the world takes us, and our hopes for it, completely by surprise.

Puzzled as to why I was suddenly frozen in place, Anton put down the blue pencil, righted my hand, slapped my palm, and said, “High five!” I called my partner from the kitchen to show her what our son had done.

I told this story to my publishing friend in New York, when we finally caught up again in late January, after the inauguration, which meant that, for the first time in years, our conversation wasn’t mostly about politics. “You mean to say,” he asked me somewhat incredulously, “that you no longer think it’s a good idea to have any vision for how your future—let alone Anton’s future—will look?” I laughed and told him he was right: time would alter my views about this epiphany, just as surely as this epiphany had altered some of the views I had held before it. But then I added: “All I really want for him and for myself, I think, is that whenever we come to the end, we can say, like Wittgenstein did, ‘Tell them I had a wonderful life.’”