The Separation of Holy Things, Part I

And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying, do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: and that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean.” – Leviticus 10:8-10


This is the first in a short series of posts dealing with Wittgenstein’s treatment of religion. More precisely, it is the first of two posts trying to explain the following passage, from the first Lecture on Religious Belief:

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgment, and I don’t, does this mean I believe opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.”

Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says “No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you.”

If someone said: “Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?” I’d say: “No.” “Do you contradict the man?” I’d say: “No.”

If you say this, the contradiction already lies in this.

Would you say: “I believe the opposite” or “There is no reason to suppose such a thing”? I’d say neither.

Suppose someone were a believer and said “I believe in a Last Judgment,” and I said “Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.” You would say there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said “There is a German aeroplane overhead” and I said “Possibly I’m not so sure,” you’d say we were fairly near.

The first thing to note here is that Wittgenstein makes a point of using the first person – these are things that he would say, expressions of his own point of view. His claim is not that when one person affirms a sentence and another denies it, they can’t take this difference of ‘sentential attitude’ to be a contradiction – just that he wouldn’t. Indeed, Wittgenstein explicitly says that one can take it as a contradiction – “if you say this, the contradiction already lies in this.” But he prefers not to; and later on in the Lecture he tries to illustrate various kinds of gap between religious belief and other kinds of belief that might at least call into question whether it is always the case that two different people who take different attitudes towards the same words, mental pictures, conceptions of reality, and so forth must be disagreeing with one another.

So there is some interesting philosophy here in the background – Wittgenstein’s thoughts about contradiction, approached only obliquely in this Lecture but addressed in much greater depth elsewhere, particularly in the remarks and lectures on the foundations of mathematics. In the next post we will take up that material directly and use it to show how, in the context of his later philosophy, Wittgenstein can plausibly be interpreted here as expressing an attitude towards religious thought similar to the one expressed in the Lecture on Ethics, except that where the broader frame of the Lecture on Ethics is fundamentally Tractarian, the broader frame of the first Lecture on Religious Belief is that of the Investigations and his later work more generally. In this first post we will examine those earlier discussions.

In the Tractatus there is nothing for religious language to be about. Propositions are pictures of facts, and specifically religious language either provides us with no such picture (cf. the discussion of “feeling absolutely safe” in the Lecture on Ethics) or a picture whose successful or hypothetically successful application to reality doesn’t actually support what we wanted belief in that picture to support in the first place (cf. the discussion of eternal life in Tractatus 6.4312; also, “so-and-so died on a cross”).

One might object to this claim by pointing out that religious language includes a variety of garden-variety factual statements, such as “the Red Sea parted when Moses raised his staff,” “Jesus was crucified,” “faithful believers are worshipping in this building,” or “there will come a time when war between nations comes to an end – and not because remotely piloted drones swiftly murder anyone who starts trouble.” But it turns out that although many religious people do in fact hold what would seem to be Tractatus­-acceptable beliefs about the world in connection with their religion, these beliefs are religiously significant to those who believe them only in conjunction with other beliefs which have no Tractarian representation.

The creation story of Genesis, for instance, is religiously worthless if taken only as a scientific description of events occurring sometime in the past – even if in some way that description turned out to be ‘true’ in the sense of providing a picture (rough or precise) of the facts. “How remarkable that an ancient Hebrew made such a clever guess!” The creation story is only a religious story once it is connected first to the agency of God, second to the moral judgment that the universe was fine (uncorrupted, good) as it was initially made by God, and third to the subsequent moral judgment that things got screwed up (evil entered the world) primarily through us. Without these surroundings, the creation story’s exact factual confirmation would not support any particular religious or moral theses; but those religious and moral statements cannot themselves receive any sort of verification of a similar kind.

Likewise, most scholars believe that the works of Josephus (as well as the Gospels) give us some evidence that Jesus, John the Baptist, and Jesus’ brother James were real historical figures, but to believe that in no way entails a belief that the Jesus who lived in history was the Christ who died for the sins of many.

To the degree that religious beliefs require a framework of physical or historical events for their articulation, then, the religious believer may indeed be committed to belief that certain propositions were or are the case – but these propositions themselves, qua pictures of facts, ‘propositions of natural science,’ are not the real drivers or even bearers of genuine religious conviction; and the spiritually invested ones that do drive and bear such convictions cannot be expressed in these types of pictures or understood as consisting in these types of facts alone. But in the Tractatus and the Lecture on Ethics, there is no other type of fact available. Thus just as value must lie outside the world (6.41), so too must everything that makes religious beliefs religious.

Wittgenstein exhibits religious feelings of a kind himself. The whole of the Tractatus as well as 6.522 testifies to his ability to feel “the world as a limited whole,” even as he argues that this feeling itself has no factual content (in this the Tractatus presents itself as an antithesis to Spinoza’s Ethics); he likewise describes a feeling of wonder at the existence of the world and a feeling of absolute security as feelings he has had in the Lecture on Ethics. The difference between Wittgenstein and say Ayer is that while both think religious language is senseless, Wittgenstein seems to regard the feelings that give rise to these ways of talking and writing as something precious and deserving of respect, while the general trend of the positivists was to see them as no more than progenitors of confusion and sophistry.

Incidentally, it is not clear that either of these views is defensible – that one can so much as formulate the idea of a feeling with no intentional object. To the degree that any feeling is a propositional attitude (fear of x as displaying a belief that f(x), anger that p, etc.) it is going to be difficult to even characterize these so-called ‘religious feelings’ – if the propositions such feelings embed are senseless, that is, aren’t propositions, then there can be no propositional attitude which incorporates them. So if we are to predicate ‘mystical feelings’ or ‘feelings of absolute safety’ to anyone, then either those feelings do not incorporate propositional attitudes (cf. Heidegger’s interpretation of anxiety as objectless fear), or the religious person must really be thinking of ordinary states of affairs (in which case they are simply indulging in false beliefs about them), or there are in fact no religious feelings.

But in any case, even if spiritual and ethical talk isn’t about anything at all in this way of looking at things, the earlier Wittgenstein does seem to think that there are distinctive religious and ethical feelings that make us want to speak in certain ways – ways which are hopeless to make any sense of, but which nonetheless stem from a tendency of mind Wittgenstein deeply respects. They involve values which, if properly thought through, would have to be understood as coming from entirely outside the world; but since we can give no sense in this view of things to the phrase “outside the world,” or what it would mean to describe values as coming from such a place, or even how there can be a place outside all places, etc., all of these formulations are empty.

What we have in religion and ethics in the early view, then, are distinctive types of nonsense, perhaps along with particular types of human feeling which tend to generate them.

Having done what we can to articulate the earlier view of religious language, we are now in a position to note that this way of separating out value statements and religious statements is unavailable in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. If people meet in order to hear someone say “this is my body, broken for you” and then distribute pieces of bread to be eaten, and then during the eating of the bread people imagine someone suffering on a cross with a peculiar mixture of deep sorrow and sublime joy, and then afterwards tell you they have consumed the flesh of Christ, etc., it is easy enough to regard what they are doing as absurd or to no apparent purpose. However, one cannot deny that the words being deployed here have a use in the sense of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy – they organize human activity and are in part constitutive of a specific and recognizable form of life. For this reason, they are not any longer nonsense in the way they were understood to be in the framework of the Tractatus. Though we can’t hook them up with some other ways of using the same words (this bread doesn’t look like meat, e.g.), nonetheless there is a distinctive language-game being played with them here.In the Lectures on Religious Belief Wittgenstein is taking up the issue of how we are to deal with and understand this kind of language.

For example, Christians argue both with each other and with non-Christians about how to understand the Eucharist. In what sense is this chunk of bread the flesh of Christ? Some will say: it doesn’t look like meat, smell like meat, etc. That doesn’t convince many Christians that it’s not the flesh of Christ – even if they agree that the look and smell are different. What would be conclusive reasons in another context of discussion don’t even seem to get off the ground here.

It is this peculiar sort of impasse which Wittgenstein is trying to characterize in the first Lecture on Religious Belief and, interestingly, he does more than characterize it – he also indicates his attitude towards the sentential ‘contradictions’ that sometimes arise when religious uses of language are placed side by side with scientific and everyday ones. In doing so Wittgenstein maintains a distinctive attitude towards religious language in his later work as well, the “deep respect” of the Lecture on Ethics now manifesting as a strong preference for keeping religious ways of speaking separate from other ways of using similar terms which might be taken to confirm, contest, or contradict them. He does not deny that one can take the person who says “you are eating bread” and the person who says “I am consuming the flesh of Christ” as contradicting each other, but on his view one need not do so – one is not rationally compelled to regard such conflicting statements as contradicting one another – and his own choice would seem to be not to.

In the next post we’ll examine why it is that Wittgenstein doesn’t think two people such as these need be interpreted as contradicting one another and continue to explore his preference for keeping religious forms of language separate from others.