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.


12 comments on “The Separation of Holy Things, Part I

  1. D K Levy says:

    I read your post with interest and am glad that you are tackling this subject. There is much though with which I would disagree, where I think you move too fast without sufficient grounding.

    On a methodological note, we should be cautious about hanging too much on any one wording in the Lectures since they are notes from several sources, not Wittgenstein’s own writing. Second, I would not be so quick to help myself to the full view of language as part-constituting human forms of life at the time of the Lectures. Rhees suggests in the latter part of the Blue/Brown Book introduction that there was still something to do to bring out the full view of language and that this came in the latter part of the Investigations. I’m not sure whether Rhees means Part II or §505ff. There are philological reasons in both cases for thinking that these were drafted after 1938. There is much in the 500s of interest, cf. §535.

    I don’t think that the Lecture on Ethics is anything like so Tractarian as you suppose. Thinking so maybe distorting the consideration you give to the examples. Why think Wittgenstein objects to feeling absolutely safe because it provides no picture of facts? He says it is a misuse of the word ‘safe’ seemingly because no word could be used with the generality of being safe whatever happens—such generality is unimaginable. This is a misuse in the same sense in which ‘wonder’ is misused when wondering at the existence of the world, since the non-existence of the world is unimaginable. Facts and pictures do not enter into this complaint.

    As it happens, the discussion in TLP of immortality is not of itself a remark on a problem with factuality or picturing. It is that immortality does not address in any way the riddle of life, which remains whether we are mortal or immortal. The thought is useless as an answer to our anxious question.

    I think you are far too quick in your treatment of why there are not facts with value and why religion and value must be treated the same way. The issue with value in TLP is that value must be non-contingent, but facts must be contingent. So there is a mismatch with the bipolar nature of language, bipolar so as to represent the contingency (≈bipolarity) of facts. The religious facts you mention (parting of the Red Sea) I think must be contingent, else we would not have evidence of a god’s mercy, generosity, etc. Jews give thanks to G-d at Passover because of what he did for them, which he need not have done. So there is immediately a reason to doubt that your presentation of what is going on here is right. Probably religious response and valuing can be given a common treatment in the Tractatus account, but I suggest that is not what you’ve done.

    The center of the Lecture on Ethics is the paradox that we have these experiences (feeling safe, wondering at the existence of the world, seeing the world as a limited whole, feeling guilty) which cannot be *further* understood by considering the facts of the natural world. It is in this rather weak sense that they are nonsense. However, if we do sometimes understand them further, then that understanding must be of something extra-worldly. I take it Wittgenstein thinks we do sometimes understand them better, e.g. when we pray, when things become clear, and more.

    It is too quick to suppose that our experiences are necessarily empty simply because they do not admit of further understanding by attending to the (natural) world. We have many thoughts that are not strictly contentful, nor religious, but otherwise in good standing. Suppose I say, “I am now thinking of all the places I have never been.” For very many reasons, we should say that what I am thinking when I say it cannot actually correspond to what my sentence means—for my thoughts cannot now encompass all the places unknown to me. There are many ways to elaborate this idea in a strictly Tractarian way (e.g. why can’t we say “All objects…”?) and in more common sense ways. However, this thought is not better understood by trying to fill out a map. Something similar is going on when I report, “I am undecided” or “I am ambivalent.”

    In any case, my point is that all of this relates to Wittgenstein’s remarks from the Lecture on Religious Belief (itself from a series of lectures on belief generally) in connection with the scope for resolving a difference in belief. Where, as in the airplane case, we might make progress by attending to the world around us, we are quite close. Where, as in the religious beliefs case, the nature of the subject matter requires attending to our own convictions (I use the term loosely), then the possibilities of our being close is rather slight. Just as Wittgenstein railed against talk of ethics as gassing, we can be sure he would have felt the same about those who might have said that religious challenges could be resolved by more studious attention to the Bible. If the latter were the case, we would be much closer to the airplane case.

    If what I say is on the right track, then there are more points of commonality between the Lecture on Ethics and the Lectures on Religious Belief than it seems you have allowed.


  2. seancstidd says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this! It will take me a bit of time to respond to all your points, but I think there is some good ground for discussion here. I see some areas where it seems to me that either we have a terminological difference or I mis-spoke (since I mostly agree with what you say about value in the Tractatus, and in fact thought that I was in a way illustrating the issue you bring up with my examples) and other areas where we may just disagree (in the interpretation of the Lecture on Ethics, e.g.). So I will try to sort that out and get back to you ASAP.

    Looking forward to the conversation!

  3. seancstidd says:

    Thanks again for your reply. Some remarks:

    I agree with what you say about the Tractatus’ discussion of immortality, and that is more or less what I had in mind when I cited it as an example.

    With respect to the Lecture on Ethics: I don’t think Wittgenstein objects to feeling absolutely safe, or feeling wonder at the existence of the world at all – on the contrary, the tendency to feel these things is just the one he respects deeply. But I do think he thinks the words we use when we try to articulate those feelings are nonsense in a roughly Tractarian sense of nonsense. I find it hard to read him another way, actually: “it is nonsense to say that [these experiences] have absolute value,” “all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense,” “nonsensicality was their very essence,” etc.

    One of the explanations we gives of why they amount to nonsens is this: “We all know what it means in ordinary life to be safe. I am safe in my room, when I cannot be run over by an omnibus. I am safe if I have had whooping cough and cannot therefore get it again. To be safe essentially means that it is physically impossible that certain things should happen to me and therefore it’s nonsense to say that I am safe whatever happens.” The point here is not so much that we can’t find uses for words expressing a feeling of ‘absolute safety’ – Peter Winch’s essay “Can a Good Man be Harmed?” shows some, as a matter of fact – but that the various pictures one associates with ordinary expressions incorporating the word ‘safe’ aren’t sufficient to rule out every possible form of what we ordinarily call ‘harm,’ etc. (Perhaps there isn’t a completely sharp line here, but it still seems that the considerations he adduces here belong more to the T side than the I.)

    The thought behind the argument that religious language couldn’t be analyzed in exclusively factual terms was just to do a sort of quick reductio arguing that even where we attributed Tractatus-acceptable beliefs that picture the facts to religious believers, the ‘factual component’ of those beliefs never by itself gets at what makes that fact religiously important. A thrilling escape from Egypt by an oppressed people led by a moody, intense visionary conflicted about his own identity makes for an interesting sequence of facts with or without spiritual surroundings, but that story isn’t one of God’s redemption of the children of Israel without them. Whether all such ‘spiritual surroundings’ can be analyzed in terms of the Tractatus’ categories of ‘the ethical’ and ‘the mystical’ I doubt, but I don’t doubt for a moment that they aren’t ‘pictures of the facts’ in the sense which that book has in mind, which is all I set out to argue really.

    I do see how in the examples I picked it might have looked like I was arguing that one could analyze the religious in terms of the ethical (and the mystical, perhaps) against the background of the Tractatus – that claim is too strong for anything I showed. (Is the feeling characteristic of a Psalm of Praise a combination of wonder at the existence of the world with a feeling of gratitude directed towards that existence and/or its cause?) But I was just trying to defend the view that “In the Tractatus there is nothing for religious language to be about,” which still seems to me to be right, given what aboutness comes to there.

    I do think that there is an attitudinal connection between the earlier and later positions W expresses on some of these questions, which is one of the things I’m trying to draw out. That should be clearer after the second post. But the way his attitudes manifest is I think different because of the changes in his philosophical outlook between 1929 and 1938. That being said, your general methodological points are well taken.



    • D K Levy says:

      Thank you for your reply.

      With regard to the Lecture on Ethics (LoE), you say you find it hard to read Wittgenstein as saying the attempt to describe these experiences results in nonsense in a “roughly Tractarian” sense of nonsense. Why is it so hard? I know it is traditional. I know that nonsense is a key term in TLP. But what is the actual evidence that this is what he has in mind when he wrote the LoE? The text does not talk about picturing, logical space or absent parts of symbolisms that would make it Tractarian. It is plain that by late 1929 (LoE was in November) Wittgenstein had grave doubts about the Tractarian picture. As you no doubt know he withdrew from presenting a paper that was broadly Tractarian (RLF). Hintikka has argued that the Tractarian picture was already collapsed by 1929. The entries in Wittgenstein’s working notebooks from this year (beginning Feb 1929) have a focus on mathematics, the thinkable, and clusters of propositions. There is some reason to think Wittgenstein was flirting with phenomenology at this time. All of these are reasons to think that his use of ‘nonsense’ is not obviously Tractarian.

      I invite you to consider whether your difficulty in reading the LoE as anything but Tractarian is not an imported bias.

      A different approach to the same question is to ask yourself whether you think your audience would have had the same trouble? Would they miss the point of the LoE if they did not? Wittgenstein must have known that the bulk of the audience would not be at home with the logical machinery of TLP. He knew the kind of audience as he had been in the audience before.

      I ask you to consider my claim: nothing hangs on the use of ‘nonsense’ in a Tractarian sense when reading the LoE. The text works fine when the term is given the kind of undifferentiated use it gets elsewhere, to include Wittgenstein’s later work.

      Of course, what is important is the relation of what is said to facts. That is crucial in the LoE. Wittgenstein certainly insists that, if you like, ethical or religious speech is not answerable to the facts. ‘Answerable’ wants a lot of philosophical explanation, but what I mean is something like that what is said can be clarified by appeal, attention, examination, perhaps analysis of the natural, the scientific, the observable. Put another way, we know various techniques— call them verification if this is meant very broadly—by which we might scrutinise what has been said for warrant, truth, plausibility, sensicality, etc. This is not so for ethical or religious claims.

      This is why, to return to the example with which you began, and which I believe is the thrust of your posts, we are rather farther apart in the ethical/religious case than we are in the airplane case. (Recall, I think we would be closer if there were a technique by which we could use scripture to resolve our disagreement.) This way of putting it also makes it clearer why we should not be so quick to call our ethical/religious disagreement a contradiction. There is no technique whose results after application produce conflicting results or a conflict about how to apply those technique. In the ethical/religious case, there are no techniques we can share or apply. We are, if you like, on our own.

      Returning to your reply, I think we agree about why feeling absolutely safe is nonsensical. We agree that the generality—the scope of what is meant to be conceived in so saying—is too vast actually to be attributed to a speaker’s intentions.

      I think you misspeak when you say Wittgenstein respects the tendency to have *feelings* of the sort he gives as examples. What he writes is that he respects the tendency to run against the boundaries of language, that insofar as ethics springs from the desire to speak or write about the absolute good et al, it is a document of a tendency he respects. I suggest that his respect is for this recurring tendency to attempt to *say/write* something about the experiences that give rise to the feelings in his examples. You may think I am nitpicking in making this point, but I am not, because I think it is important that Wittgenstein’s animus is directed at the desire to speak/write. The reason is that the desire to put things into words is a desire to make something “concrete” and “controllable” as he says in LoE, which, I think, is against his personal view of what meeting an ethical (or spiritual?) challenge in life is like.

      I don’t really follow the detail of the “quick reductio” you suggested, but that is not important for the interesting point you raise. That is, a story of the facts of Exodus would not be Exodus with religious significance without what you call the “spiritual surroundings”. You doubt whether this might be accommodated using Tractarian ideas of the ethical or mystical. What this point seems to me to indicate is a potentially deep difficulty in Wittgenstein’s treatment of religion and ethics, concerning the way in which language relates to the internal or external in a person. The brilliance of the later philosophy is that it gives us a picture of how language can constitute a form of life, or, as Diamond says, our life with language. In this way, we can make a lot of sense of how the language of religion supplies not a technical lingo with its own grammar, but a way of life in which prayer, confession, anxiety about grace, etc. are possible. I wonder if you think this is what constitutes the “spiritual surroundings”?

      I ask because I still think that while this helps us to see why religious belief does not conflict with scientific belief in the crude way in which some think it does, I don’t think it takes us as far as we would like. It provides a spiritual surrounding of a sort, but is it enough? Someone can learn the language of religion and seek to speak it as his co-religionists do. He may do so such that he is intelligible to them and goes on in the right way. But will this be enough for him to see the story of Exodus as the story of God’s delivering Israel from Pharaoh? I’m not sure. Won’t something further be required of him, something that learning the language (with all that entails in an Investigations sense) will not provide? Of course he will know that this story is very important to his co-religionists, he may well understand that it is an example of God keeping his promise to Israel and so on. But will it “impress” him (spiritually), for want of a better word?

      Let’s try this from the other side. Imagine a priest who has lost his faith. He, at least as much as anyone, knows the language of his religion and has lived that life with language. He can function wholly intelligibly to his fellows. He can discharge his sermons on a Sunday, accept confession, even offer consolations culled from scriptural knowledge. Ex hypothesi, something is gone, about which he may well be aware. It seems a mistake to suppose that he has forgot the language, forgot how to speak, forgot what these words mean, how they are used, for what purpose, with what significance. Has he lost the “spiritual surroundings” or something else?

      I am not sure of the import of this because a) I think it is a difficult area; and b) I’m writing quickly. However, I think it points to a way in which language may remain external in some sense that is irrelevant to the language of description, the law, and math but which is important in the realm of ethics and religion. The ethical, the mystical, the religious all seem to require something internal. I feel quite sure that in LoE at least, and to some extent TLP, Wittgenstein felt that this internal aspect could not be touched in any important way by language. So placing any weight, even in reflective contemplation by means of language, on language in meeting this internal demand, if you will, is a mistake—because hopeless, ineffective. The question is whether this is true for Wittgenstein later on? My suspicion is that it is, but I am not sure how it fits into the picture of language from the Investigations. My suspicion is grounded by my conviction that Wittgenstein’s ethical views did not change over time in any signficant way. The challenge is to articulate an internal requirement on, say, faith, that does not run foul of considerations of logical privacy. I think it can be done, but I’ve not done it.

      (I should mention that my thoughts in this regard have been shaped to a very large extent by Rhees’ Religion and Language in Without Answers.)


      • seancstidd says:

        Hi again!

        There is a lot here to discuss. I am going to leave some of it for the time being, with the plan of getting back to most of these issues eventually as there is time to discuss them. I do have a few more comments before moving on though:

        1) I am not appealing to the details of the Tractatus in saying that the picture of nonsense in the Lecture on Ethics has more in common with the earlier than the later work. The salient contrast is between nonsense as failing to provide a picture of the facts and nonsense as not giving you anything to do. So when you say “Of course, what is important is the relation of what is said to facts. That is crucial in the LoE,” the centrality of that relation in the discussion is what I mean by appealing to a “Tractarian conception of nonsense.” That is not what is primarily important in the later work as I understand it, and also not in the quoted selection from the Lectures on Religious Belief – since, as I will argue in the next post, the two disagreeing people could on Wittgenstein’s account have exactly the same picture of the facts involved in the Last Judgment and still not (necessarily) be contradicting each other when one says these states of affairs will someday be and the other says they will not. Whereas, in the discussion of ‘absolutely safe,’ the problem is that we can’t (supposedly) form any picture of what absolute safety would be – the question of what one might do with those words doesn’t really arise.

        2) After your imagined priest loses his faith, he can still hear the confessions of others, but he can no longer honestly confess or believe that he has received forgiveness for his own sins in the way he could have before. The questions you raise here are ones I consider deep and deserve a lot more discussion than I can give them right now. I am going to come back to them. For now I’ll just say that (a) you are right that all sorts of phenomena of the spiritual life are inner phenomena, but (b) this doesn’t mean they can’t also manifest in language and behavior; further that (c) the distinction between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer,’ perhaps like all such distinctions, is one that can only bear a certain amount of weight before it breaks, but (d) that doesn’t mean it isn’t a real distinction in the areas where it hasn’t broken, and in any case (e) one ought to resist the temptation to think of ‘language-games,’ ‘forms of life,’ etc. as isolated formal-behavioral complexes of the sort that would allow one to think of them as leaving one’s environment and one’s awareness of it and oneself out, because (f) they’re not and (g) when we think of them that way many of the traditional philosophical problems we thought we were dissolving reappear, alongside some new technical ones peculiar to the bizarre and unappealing view that emerges when we think of them that way (‘linguistic idealism,’ ‘fideism,’ etc.).

        3) I keep thinking of Peter Winch’s “Can a Good Man be Harmed?” article as relevant to our conversation, for what that’s worth – I think some of the issues we touch on here he takes up in a useful way there.

        I very much appreciate your thoughtful comments on my post and I have learned from them. I do think some of the issues we are discussing will come into a bit clearer focus in the second post when I have a chance to finish it up.



  4. Lynette says:

    I wrote a bunch and I lost it. Curse you, iPad, and how you treat navigating away from open browser tabs when two tabs are open to the same website.

    Two points:

    I think you’re right that he had different resources for discussing religious belief later than he did earlier. I’m not sure it’s so neatly captured in the “language as use” point.

    I don’t see the “voluntarism” in his thought as taking place quite where you see it. (I mean the “you could call it this, or you could call it that; I would call it this” step.)

    Expanded upon:

    I think it’s important (for understanding LW) that he says, according to these notes, that he doesn’t know how to apply talk of sense and understanding in this case. How he treats it isn’t going to turn on that. This is a big change from the TLP. But I don’t see it as quite the change you describe. He doesn’t just say, well, meaning is use, and we can describe how the believer uses language here, so we understand the meaning.

    (Why not?)

    And I think it’s important (for understanding LW) that he does say you would be crazy or mistaken to call it a contradiction. He does continue to think that interpreting these beliefs as just like any other belief (open to the “same kinds” of teaching, testing, and refutation) would be to mistake the depth or kind of these beliefs. (I take the “the contradiction lies already in this” as “what you’re trying to get at by labelling it a contradiction lies already in the fact that one raises questions and subjects it to proof and the other doesn’t.”)

    He could say: “some people see the particular pictures on which faith is built as a in contradiction with other pictures (whether of science or common sense) and some do not. When Ruskin said something beautiful I saw at the (Ottawa) National Gallery this fall and wish I could recall precisely or find (something like “every chisel strike of the archeologists is a death blow for religion”), he wasn’t saying something crazy, or stupid, or superficial, or scientistic: he was genuinely struggling.” (Maybe it was a comment on the rocks & ferns painting:

    (Why not?)

    Oddly enough, neither “why not?” is a rhetorical question.

    Two things I find myself thinking today as I look at these notes afresh.

    He’s interested early in the feeling (that drives you to use the word “safe” in a way that’s nonsense) because that’s the kind of religious phenomenon that is most captivating given his philosophy at that point, and he’s most interested in organizing your life around a picture, because that’s the religious phenomenon that most challenges his earlier view—during his lifelong re-consideration of his earlier view. According to some people, that’s backwards: they think he’s really motivated by the religious/ethical view, and this doesn’t change. I’d agree this far with them: he’s motivated throughout by impatience with what he sees as scientism.

    LW gets a lot of mileage out of supposing there are serious religious folks who isolate their pictures from all questions of “is it true or not” and there are spiritualist folks who don’t so isolate their beliefs, and the latter kind set about trying to catch ghosts. No Ruskins here. I guess I think that lets him get off easy on the question of saying what scientism is and what’s wrong with it.


    • seancstidd says:

      Hi Lynette!

      I was thinking that ‘theoretical Wittgensteinism’ is often an attempt to write a Tractatus for the later work.

      There is something in the connection I make to the meaning as use point but I certainly don’t want to see the remarks here as following from it in the way that I sometimes suggest and that you pick up on in the opening comment. Figuring out how to write about these kinds of relationships abstractly is challenging – and possibly a sign that one has lost the thread. I guess it depends on what one is trying to do.

      I wouldn’t, and Wittgenstein wouldn’t, say that we understand the meaning because we can describe the use.

      (Why not? One reason might be that language is expressive – you can know what sort of thing people say and still not find anything in yourself that would need those words – which might mean you don’t understand the first-person side from other people either. Similarly the fact that Ruskin felt these beliefs to be in conflict, and identified to some degree with both sides, and expressed those feelings seriously makes his tension more compelling. That’s not all there is to either question, but I do think it’s an important part.)

      I think the point I was trying to make there was more like: where we see a clear pattern of use, a (practice/form of life/behavior), it is important to understand the words that speakers use in relation to that pattern of use, and not simply to assimilate what is being said in those contexts to the way that type-identical inscriptions and utterances are used in other patterns of use – even if there is some ‘associated content’ in common between the two contexts.

      This relates to the point about scientism. I agree that there is an anti-scientistic strain in Wittgenstein’s thought, but more generally there’s also an ‘anti-comprehensiveness’ or ‘anti-theory’ impulse that I think subsumes it. I think scientism was the most entrenched form of dogmatism in his circles, as it was in mine growing up – but W spends very little of his time or energy actually writing about science despite this. Rather I think of of Omar Khayyam’s 99th quatrain:

      Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
      To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
      Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
      Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

      Of course we can’t do any such thing; but the scientistic outlook claims that we can. (This is exactly what Descartes is offering us in the Discourse on Method, for example.) One thing that Wittgenstein is writing against early and late is this sense that we have or can ‘grasp this sorry scheme of things entire’ at all. But the technique(s) for returning us to our present location are very different.

      The perspective I’ve been trying to grasp, which may or may not have been Wittgenstein’s, but which I think bears some relation to it, is a perspective that says “here are some things people are doing, they don’t all have to fit together, we can understand each on its own terms, and we can resist the temptation to want to adjudicate the one in terms of the other.”

      You write: “And I think it’s important (for understanding LW) that he does say you would be crazy or mistaken to call it a contradiction.” Well, people do take these beliefs as differences of opinion, viewpoint, or attitude all the time – from the religious side and from the non-religious.

      Perhaps one moral that could be drawn here is that differences of opinion need not involve contradictions. Frameworks like voting make them seem to, and perhaps in contests and fixed resource allocation scenarios there is a sense in which differences of assertion and action wind up always involving something like contradiction. But, pace some of my countrymen, not all of life amounts to contests and fixed resource allocation scenarios. There is also time for listening and understanding.

      On the other hand – if you were to tell some religious people that you don’t believe in the last judgment but don’t take yourself to be contradicting them when they say they do, I am sure that would not be the end of the conversation. And it’s not all Ham vs. Nye level cultural detritus either. By saying this to a certain kind of believer you are (or at least often will be taken as) also confessing that Christ hasn’t given you a new heart yet. Their desire to do good for you will then often lead them want to share the gospel – in the same way that an anti-religious person’s desire to do good for the religious person might lead them to try to get the person asserting belief in the last judgment to leave off thinking and talking that way.

      Now I do think it would be idiotic, or at least distasteful, and for that matter quite against Paul’s recommendations on the subject, to try to bring you to faith through some ersatz statistical analysis of Bible prophecy, or whatever, and there are certainly people who make it their business to do that sort of thing. And similarly I share a general sense that the Dawkins-type atheist, the devotee of scientism, is really not even managing to address the views of the people he hopes (we assume) to persuade.

      I guess I think this because I think that one ought to contradict someone in conversation (which is fundamentally a loving activity, at least outside the academy) only if one understands, for lack of a better phrase, their point of view.

      But if you are committed to always viewing discourse through the lens of comprehensive theory, what choice do you have? It doesn’t take a lot of assumptions to make something like Donald Davidson’s argument against conceptual schemes go through. One man’s soul is in jeopardy and the other one’s spreading delusion. What deeper form of contradiction could there be?

      Most serious religious people I have met consider their scriptures true, for some value of true at least.

  5. Lynette says:

    Hi Sean!

    Indeed, I realize that saying anything not completely false is hugely challenging in this and other areas of philosophy and I do like to honour the person who starts the ball rolling by trying…

    You say:

    “You write: “And I think it’s important (for understanding LW) that he does say you would be crazy or mistaken to call it a contradiction.” Well, people do take these beliefs as differences of opinion, viewpoint, or attitude all the time – from the religious side and from the non-religious.”

    And I agree with you here, over agreeing with what I take Wittgenstein to be saying.

    Just now, reading your illuminating comments about scientism, it seems to me that it’s odd that he’s against all-encompassing explanatory theory–that he thinks it’s a job of philosophy to criticize that–but he’s not “against” focusing your life around a dominant picture that is shut off from criticism. This is an absurd question (where would Wittgenstein in 1320 have stood?) but I kind of like it. The latter kind of “hegemonic something or other” is nicely particularist. But is it the particularism vs. generality, or the held lightly vs. compulsively, or believed humbly vs. arrogantly that is the concern? Maybe if he lived in the middle ages he’d rage against the great chain of being and the role in intellectual life of the idea that there is one all-encompassing picture that has to structure our understanding.

    We can name people–okay, Ruskin is serious but Dawkins is ham-fisted–but where does that get us?

    There are different kinds and purposes of conversations. How much and what kind of love do I owe someone whose idea of respectful and loving conversation is to keep on offering me, patiently and kindly, the salvation of Christ, while fighting against my civil rights (or mourning their achievement) based on some toxic combination of what the bible tells them and the boost in self-esteem and relational/communitarian comfort they get from thinking “my marriage is of a type that only people like me get to enjoy, and thank god for keeping the queers away”? Do I just stop talking to them? Or do I talk to them in the political sphere? Is every sphere of conversation also a political sphere? Is the idea of a political sphere based on love realistic? Or another cover for a hegemony?

    Why do “Wittgensteinian views” of language bring us to making apologetics for fascist particularists, and not to trying to understand in a particularist spirit the complexities of how big pictures and large theoretical claims in particular cases contribute to or derogate from human understanding and community, against the backdrop of the diversity of things those terms mean and who has what interests in what those terms mean? Ruskin might do it in a quiet, personal struggle kind of way; Dawkins in a bombastic and proselytizing kind of way….not sure what the implications of that are.

    Your first comment about writing a Tractatus for his later work made me chuckle, by the way!


    • seancstidd says:

      Thanks for sticking with me here, Lynette!

      OK, first of all – great question, why someone would be opposed to a totalizing theory of everything but not to organizing one’s life around a picture.

      I think “shut off from criticism” is not correct – that’s a rhetorical frame from the debates around ‘fideism’, ‘Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion,’ etc. – it’s just that the weights and relevance of various sorts of consideration are different in (at least some) religious discussions than they are in other sorts of discussion. ‘Empirical’ or ‘scientific’ criticism is often much less relevant, or at least can be taken to be much less relevant, to religious discourse than some people think it ought to be, is the way I would put it.

      Or at least that’s what Wittgenstein should say given what he does say I think.

      Presumably the degree to which this is true depends on what science says about religious matters and what religion says about scientific ones. In a way Wittgenstein makes the discussion too easy – but maybe for illustrative purposes? this is a class transcript, after all – in the current selection by focusing on proposed future happenings like the resurrection and the last judgment. In those cases we really can sort of say, here’s one kind of consideration that suggests one thing, and another kind of consideration which suggests another, and since the imagined events are in some broad sense logically possible, then we can just consider the kinds of surrounding beliefs and practices, etc.

      But what about belief in Noah’s flood, or laying on hands to awaken the healing powers of the Holy Spirit within someone? What is the religious significance of these beliefs? What is their scientific plausibility? There are surely ways that intelligent people can reconcile what we learn about the world through scientific inquiry with beliefs that certain physical events with a divine significance or origin happened or are happening now. But to have the discussion you have to have the discussion, not talk about the form of the discussion you would be having if you were having it.

      Similarly there are different measures of ‘scientific’ or ‘ordinary’ plausibility and they don’t all come to the same thing. I don’t find the story of my cousin Joseph Smith discovering a set of golden plates in Palmyra, New York particularly plausible, but no laws of nature I can think of would be contravened if it were true.

      I don’t know how to respond to a lot of your really excellent later questions in this context because doing so would involve substantial discussions of my own views in political philosophy, religion, etc. which seems like a distraction. However, the fact that I would need to bring my own opinions into the discussion to try to answer these questions seriously seems highly relevant. How can you talk about how science and faith interact, personally, philosophically, or politically, outside of the context of actual science and actual faith?

      Philosophy can help here but it can’t replace the stuff it organizes.

      One religious sort of response to your earlier question is that all pictures are false idols and so if you’re organizing your life around a picture you’ve gone wrong somewhere. (In different contexts the Buddha and John Calvin both have useful things to say about this, among others.)

      This is also a plausible interpretation of one thread of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, early and late.

      So perhaps the religious person as Wittgenstein conceives her, at least the relatively self-aware one, will not think of herself as having organized her life around a picture. “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.” I’m getting nowhere with this today (five hours in front of the computer to produce this rubbish).

      And there’s a sense in which both the self-undermining metaphysics of the Tractatus and the particularism of the Investigations are both very much trying to cut against the idea that big pictures are anything but illusions.

      Is this a religious point of view?

      – S

  6. […] friend at another blog posted something on Wittgenstein that dovetails nicely with my reading of Florovsky. Recall Florovsky says our mental habits need to […]

  7. Lynette says:

    I guess there are a couple of respects in which I think that Wittgenstein’s comments on religious belief and not “generalizable,” i.e. available for adoption by other philosophers. One is that I think he is interested in these examples as part of a self-critique of his logical views. The *picture* around which you organize your life, and the fact that you can describe that picture, while you “shut your eyes” to doubt (“my eyes are shut”), is a powerful example of a bunch of stuff configured together that he would have wanted to or had to construe on different terms in his early account of language, logic, and limits. That’s where my question about why he objects to systematizers but not picture-adherents comes from–“the eggshells of his former views” are all over his interest in this phenomena. At the same time, he’s opposed to scientific philistines (“scientism”) all throughout his life, and he works through that opposition in his philosophy—but I guess I think that sometimes he conflates things in doing that (if I can be so bold). What he objects to in science and politics (Russell’s books that should be bound in red and burned) and what he wants to save from philistine scientism (Tolstoy’s gospels) has much to do with his own temperament and historical situation (second reason), and I can’t begin to occupy that position, despite the curious PhD-practice that I carried out of thinking oneself into a great white man’s shoes. So I do switch register quite deliberately.

    Does he worry about what the genuine religious believer would think or say “if self-aware”? I get the feeling that he has an attraction to the idea that you really can live this way, both personally and logically, and an acknowledgement that he can’t himself do so (he can’t “bend the knee”), and there is a philosophical commitment to leaving it at that (“at bedrock” in logic, you carry on like this…or you don’t carry on like this…and if you keep on trying to explain this fact then you are likely repeating yourself without realizing it).

    He’s less interested in the believer who is bothered by trying to reconcile these things. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be philosophically interested in or personally living through those different lives, and it may be that what he says philosophically about the kind of believer he’s interested in will only help us get so far in understanding our own questions. In a way I can see why you think getting into your own views would be a distraction, but in the bigger picture it’s not at all.


  8. Lynette says:

    Just to multiply examples, here’s a different kind of relationship between spiritual beliefs and science.

    I think the form of spirituality that Wittgenstein works with or thinks about is probably marked deeply by the way it has adapted around the margins of science (or to maintain its hegemony in the face of science, it feels like when you watch the US inauguration and the number of religious events an incoming president is required to attend).

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