Cowardly Beyond Measure: Wittgenstein As Educator

Der Vorfall Haidbauer, also known as The Haidbauer Incident, took place in Otterthal, Austria, in April of 1926.

The incident’s namesake, Josef Haidbauer, was an 11-year-old schoolboy enrolled in the class of none other than Ludwig Wittgenstein, famed philosopher and arguably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

In a letter to Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein described his new position as “in the mountains, about four hours’ journey south of Vienna.” He said he had been “terribly depressed,” but was more hopeful — though his hope is not explicitly linked to the teaching post he held there.

So what happened to Josef to warrant an incident that has its own Wikipedia page, several literary journal articles, and many more blog entries?

It seems that poor Josef was not performing to Wittgenstein’s standards, and since the philosopher believed in corporal punishment, he hit the 11-year-old enough times (three) to knock him unconscious. Other literature has suggested the Josef was not the only one — the New Oxford Review claims Wittgenstein also hit a little girl, and likely countless other children. The brilliant-but-troubled philosopher denied the incidents, but also hastily left his post as teacher.

From then on he would live as a troglodyte in Norway. He emerged in 1937, as if charged by a New Year’s resolution, to make a sweeping confession to all he had harmed or offended, focusing particularly on the schoolroom injuries.

The regret wouldn’t last long, however. One year after “confessing,” Wittgenstein wrote in his diary:

...with God’s help I pulled myself together and made a confession. This brought me into more settled waters, into a better relation with people, and to greater seriousness. But now it is as though I had spent all that, and I am not far from where I was before. I am cowardly beyond measure.

Although deeply influential in classrooms to this day, Wittgenstein the educator was, even in his own estimation, unequal to the task.

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