The Separation of Holy Things, Part II

In the last post we were hoping to make sense of Wittgenstein’s thought that a person who expresses a belief in, say, the last judgment or the resurrection, and a person lacking religious convictions who says that such a thing will not happen, need not be contradicting one another. That is, they may or may not be, but what W seems to be claiming is that the bare fact that one person says

There will be a resurrection of the dead

perhaps because she lives her life in expectation of it, and another person says

There will not be a resurrection of the dead

perhaps because the dead (so far as she is aware) have never yet returned to life and she expects that pattern to continue, does not, according to Wittgenstein, entail that these two people are contradicting one another; that is, that one of them is asserting r and the other ~r.

One of the things I think Wittgenstein was doing in this passage is sharing what was at the time (perhaps) his attitude as a way of illustrating some of the complexities that can arise in discussing our beliefs, religious and otherwise. Later on in the first Lecture he writes:

If you ask me whether I believe in a Judgment Day, in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn’t say: “No. I don’t believe such a thing.” It would strike me as utterly crazy to say this…

In one sense, I understand all he says – the English words “God,” “separate,” etc. I understand. I could say “I don’t believe in this,” and that would be true, meaning I haven’t got these thoughts, or anything that hangs together with them. But not that I could contradict the thing.

You might say: “Well, if you can’t contradict him, that means you don’t understand him. If you did understand him, then you might.” That again is Greek to me. My normal technique of language leaves me. I don’t know whether to say they understand one another or not.

This is of a piece with what was said before. S asserts p; Wittgenstein says that he wouldn’t assert p, and in could even assert ~p in the sense that he can’t make any sense out of these words for himself; but wouldn’t assert ~p in order to contradict a religious believer who said p.

The last paragraph of this second quotation is philosophical and relates not so much to the Last Judgment or to religious belief more generally as to theories of meaning on which the above attitudes are incoherent. W seems to be denying either or both of (a) propositions of the form “S understands T’s assertion that p” always have a clear and/or distinct application to reality and (b) the ability to contradict someone saying p covaries with one’s understanding of p. I think that he wouldn’t have asserted either (a) or (b), but neither bears much relation specifically to religious belief and language – except, perhaps, that by acknowledging the possibility that there is a kind of sense-making going on in the religious person’s assertion of belief in the resurrection and last judgment, Wittgenstein is not taking his own supposed inability to think or do anything in connection with them as a sign that others are similarly disposed.

There is again here though a kind of odd space for the separation of holy things – the possibility that there are practices or even a ‘form of life’ in which such pictures, predictions, and prophecies play some meaningful role, where beliefs such as this have some use. There is an unwillingness to foreclose on this possibility despite the inability to make sense of it in familiar terms.

Humility? Restraint?

Note that it is also a different way of relating to religious beliefs from what we observed in the context of the Tractatus and Lecture on Ethics. The spiritual is now at least in principle allowed to show itself in this realm, in our life with language and each other, even if it is never quite ‘found’ there in the way that some natural things are. One can of course continue to ask questions about the ultimate foundations of these practices, and since religion is often considered to provide answers to such questions, perhaps the issues touched on in the previous post are in some sense still in play. But it’s at least interesting, and perhaps even surprising and unexpected, that adopting something like the viewpoint of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy winds up putting religious rituals and forms of life back in play as contexts for the meaningfulness of religious language, even if said forms of language are in a certain sense “left hanging” relative to demands for theological or scientific comprehensiveness.

He returns to this issue again in the second Lecture:

Suppose someone dreamt of the Last Judgment, and said he now knew what it would be like. Suppose someone said: “This is poor evidence.” I would say: “If you want to compare it with the evidence for it’s raining tomorrow it is no evidence at all…”

If you compare it with anything in Science which we call evidence, you can’t credit that anyone would soberly argue: “Well, I had this dream…therefore…Last Judgment.” You might say, “For a blunder, that’s too big.” If you suddenly wrote numbers down on the blackboard, and then said, “Now, I’m going to add,” and then said “2 and 21 is 13,” etc., I’d say: “This is no blunder.”

There are cases where I’d say he’s mad, or he’s making fun. Then there might be cases where I look for an entirely different interpretation altogether. In order to see what the explanation is I should have to see the sum, to see in what way it is done, what he makes follow from it, what are the different circumstances under which he does it, etc.

Again the thought is fairly straightforward. Whatever the believer in the last judgment and resurrection is saying, it can’t be rooted in ordinary scientific patterns of reasoning and evidence presuming only material and sensory inputs, etc., and it’s a mistake to try to interpret it in terms of those patterns. Having realized this, one has to look for some other sense to these words if one wants to contradict someone who asserts them; even though in another sense one can deny them for herself in the sense that she can’t ascribe any clear meaning to them.

A stock ‘explanation’ of the related claims addressed in these passages ‘in terms of the later philosophy’ might go roughly like this: since these two propositions occur in different ‘language-games’, have their meaning in connection with different ‘forms of life’, etc., they aren’t really ‘opposed’ to each other in the way that, say, “There is a German aeroplane about to drop a bomb on us” and “There is not a German aeroplane about to drop a bomb on us” are. Rather, the first person is speaking ‘within’ ‘the’ ‘religious’ ‘language-game’ and the second person is outside it, so the propositions mean different things. One can treat the two language-games as part of a larger single language-game, which is what in fact some religious ‘fundamentalists’ and atheists alike do, and if both parties are committed to that, then perhaps these two speakers can in fact be contradicting one another despite the different ‘forms of life’ in which the language they use is ‘at home,’ but generally speaking they need not be, since the ‘practices’ in which their terms are ‘embedded’, their ‘uses in the language’, are in fact distinct.

Does that help?

Sorry about the scarequotes. They help register irresolution.

A paragraph like that doesn’t say much. Its use, insofar as it has one, would be to provide certain kinds of guidance in trying to interpret people’s behavior and language, to make sense of what people are actually doing. If you think they’re doing x, or that they must be doing x, then showing that they’re doing y instead might be helpful. You can disambiguate language at a number of different levels, not just in terms of associated pictures or criteria of application. You can also disambiguate it at the level of activity. It’s not really even that fancy a point unless you’re convinced that semantic atoms always come in particular types which do not depend upon the human activities in which they are embedded (e.g. words, propositions, speech acts). If you’re not convinced of that then you might look at human activities as organizing uses of language and thus meaning, and then that would provide you another sort of ground on which to disambiguate uses of terms, without necessarily being able to say what in-some-respects-similar terms mean or don’t mean in the unfamiliar context.

None of this would help you get clearer on religion, closer to God, etc. of course. All it does is make a space for understanding religious language, ritual, feeling, belief, etc. in different terms than you understand superficially similar kinds of claims made within other sorts of human activities. Whether any such understanding is gained is a separate issue and probably depends on finding your way into one or another form of religious practice.

This point is of some independent interest.  A fairly high percentage of the educated people I have known attempt to explain anything hinting of religion or spirituality in terms of delusion, criminality, or ignorance, partly (but only partly) because they assimilate such talk to familiar models and practices from everyday life, science, etc. If you thought that such a person was being too impatient it might be salutary to bring up the possibility that something else was going on with religious people.

But that moment of uncertainty only goes so far, since they will then want to know what they’re missing. Wittgenstein’s primary concern in the Lectures on Religious Belief seem to be more with exploring the consequences of religious forms of language for “logic” in the broad sense than with trying to make sense of religious forms of life on their own terms. The steps he takes seem to me mostly to be preliminary and hesitating. There may be good reasons for this in terms of the outlooks we have been sketching; it may be for example that he thought that the second he gave in to the temptation to characterize religious beliefs the broadly logical considerations he was trying to tease out would vanish. Or perhaps he thought that this kind of indirect approach to religion and spirituality was the only way he could tease any meaning out of it; he certainly was quite withering towards C. W. O’Hara’s attempt to make out religious beliefs as ‘reasonable’ in the empirical sense in which beliefs that it will rain later this afternoon might be reasonable: “If this is religious belief, then it’s all superstition.”

So one aggravation of the Lectures on Religious Belief on the assumption that they are to teach us about, say, religious belief is that many of the discussions have more the character of preparatory sketches than the kind of serious, sustained diagnoses we get in the Philosophical Investigations. The current discussion is like that. Wittgenstein suggests for example that a religious sort of belief in the last judgment involves (or could involve) a recurring sense of motivating terror not reached through reflective processes – “a man would fight for his life not to be dragged into the fire” – whereas beliefs based on evidence might or might not yield such a feeling based on the attitudes of the believer, the strength of the evidence, the time to correct course, etc. – “the belief as formulated on the evidence can only be the last result – in which a number of ways of thinking and acting crystallize and come together.” Whereas there is “no induction” with the religious belief.

But that by itself won’t help anyone see the difference. In fact, observed in isolation it probably will make the phenomenon of belief in the last judgment even more bewildering to the ‘scientific’ thinker, because now in addition to people making bizarre and irrational predictions, you also have people running around possessed by groundless terrors. “Might as well shut the whole thing down, if that’s what they’re up to.”

One needs to give someone a sense of what the other way of thinking is actually like. For whatever reason – if we take what he says here as an accurate description of his own attitudes, it might have been because at this time in his life he genuinely wasn’t able to make sense out of the various forms of religious belief he encountered – recall what he said about Trakl’s poems: “I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy” – Wittgenstein doesn’t really do that or even try to in these short Lectures.

There’s an understandable sort of impatience with this approach from some quarters – religious and anti-religious both. “This is ridiculous! Of course one understands what’s being said. One can even paint pictures of it:

“Anyone can look at a picture like this, read the words in Daniel 12:1-3, Matthew 25:31-46, Revelations 20, etc. and basically understand what is meant by the notions of “last judgment” and “resurrection”. Isn’t it clear as day? (Actually, no – consider Ezekiel 37 in relation to these passages, for starters – but let that slide.) Why would we characterize this as a difference in meaning or understanding at all? Perhaps there is a difference in the kind of reasons or evidence different people might offer for believing that something like this will or will not eventually occur. But they are disagreeing as to whether specific, imaginable – so clearly imaginable that one can paint them! – events will or will not occur at some indeterminate future time. And since such events either will or will not occur, statements to the effect that they will or will not are either true or false, with no ambiguity whatsoever, and unclarity only as it pertains to specific details, not as to the general character of the proposed happening.”

I think it’s probably fair to say that at least in the religious case, and many others as well, Wittgenstein thinks that if you have no idea why someone would say something like that and you have no idea what role those words and pictures play in someone’s actual life and behavior, you really don’t understand what’s being said. (This is a very weak claim: it doesn’t even imply that religious people aren’t all deluded; just that you can’t read such a delusion off the weak or nonexistent scientific evidence for their claims alone.) The possibility that I see Wittgenstein as holding out for here is just that there might be a good sense, or even a multiplicity of good senses, for these words in forms of life which incorporate them, even if he can’t personally see them; followed by some quite tentative explorations of the kind of sense they might (life-changing terror) and might not (Father O’Hara) plausibly, on his view, might be thought to have.

There are admittedly deep discussions remaining about when we are and are not presented with contradictions, and where precisely (if there is any precision to be had here) the line is between different propositions and different forms of evidence for the same proposition. Perhaps we will return to those another time.

I think what one needs to go further is a case to dig into and try to make sense of, which, if one wants to write about religious belief and religious language, probably means trying to articulate things from a believing point of view, and seeing what comes of that.

I’ll close with a passage from Simone Weil that seems to be relevant, in the letter referred to as “Spiritual Autobiography”:

You said: “Be very careful, because if you should pass over something important through your own fault it would be a pity.”

That made me see intellectual honesty in a new light. Till then I had only thought of it as opposed to faith; your words made me think that perhaps, without my knowing it, there were in me obstacles to the faith, impure obstacles, such as prejudices, habits. I felt that after having said to myself for so many years simply: “Perhaps all that is not true,” I ought, without ceasing to say it – I still take care to say it very often now – to join it to the opposite formula, namely: “Perhaps all that is true,” and to make them alternate.

When I read this I admit that when I think about what is ‘true’ and ‘not true’ I more or less think of giving or withdrawing my assent to various propositions and pictures. But in order to do that, I have to think about the connections of those propositions and pictures, to other propositions and pictures and feelings and moral convictions and scientific theories and theological ideas and everything else that floats about in one’s head when one considers broad issues like this. That’s the medium in which the propositions and pictures have some kind of sense.

Sometimes we can pull the bits out without any damage to the whole, as in the case of dispute over the presence of a German aeroplane. Wittgenstein is suggesting that this need not always be the case, and that statements of religious belief can be taken as examples.


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