A Little List

THE PROBLEM THAT NEEDED to be solved, and to which this basic work owed its existence, was anything but philosophical. Austria at this time lacked a dictionary accessible to pupils in the poorer regions of the country. Wittgenstein thought this could easily be remedied. In autumn 1924, he made contact with a Viennese textbook publisher, which immediately registered an interest in putting the project into action. What was required was an alphabetically arranged, orthographically correct list of the most common and important words in the vocabulary of a rural child of primary school age. The book was intended to enable pupils, if they were unsure how to write a word, simply to look it up, and thereby improve their spelling by themselves. Not earth-shattering in itself, it might seem. Abendmahl (evening meal) was in there, as was Abendbrot (supper). But what about Abendstern (evening star) or even Abendland (the West)? Pfau (peacock) and Pfeil (arrow) needed to be in there, but what about Promenade? Or would the introduction of that concept to a young rural mind already represent the beginning of a cultural decline?

Surely, if the borders of language are the borders of the world, it must be the duty of the pedagogue to draw those borders as carefully as possible, and also to guard them? Questions, and questions about questions, all of them with values attached. The Wittgenstein test still applies even today. Tell me which three thousand words are most important in your life, and I will tell you who you are. The dictionary project, in terms of both content and execution, was a prime example of Wittgenstein’s whole pedagogical approach.

In the fastness of his bedroom, he selected words without asking or consulting his pupils. He included vernacular words, since they were part of the natural linguistic usage of his pupils. In Otterthal he also turned the dictionary into a project that the children put into practice step by step in the course of the school year: from laboriously writing out the lists of words by hand, often for hours at a time, to copying them out in beautiful handwriting, then binding the pages into a book. (Wittgenstein had the material sent from Vienna at his own expense.) For many of his students their handwritten volume would have been the first and only one they owned.

«Wittgenstein was a project-based teacher. He always tried to make his subject matter visible in objects. He was particularly keen on animal skeletons, which he prepared and assembled with his pupils. The carcasses, which included cats and other roadkill, he collected from the village streets, skinned and disemboweled them himself, before boiling the bones for several days. Even in Trattenbach the resulting foul stench led to fierce complaints from the neighborhood. But this didn’t keep Wittgenstein from persisting with all the further stages of these projects. In the end he wasn’t doing it for himself, he was doing it for education. Moreover, he couldn’t have cared less about the opinions of his fellow villagers, unlike those of the children under his tutelage. Whenever complainants showed up at his house, he slammed the door in their outraged faces and told them that if the smell bothered them so much, they should simply leave, ideally forever!





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