The Separation of Holy Things: Postscript

I realized that in the last post I never really quite brought things back around to Wittgenstein’s attitude towards religion in the later work.

We’ve been considering among other things an animus in Wittgenstein’s philosophy for totalizing pictures, perhaps of the kind you get most often in physics, philosophy, psychology, and theology – although none of those fields is exhaustively characterized by the search for a total theory-picture. One kind of criticism (there are many) that I think finds some resonance in some of Wittgenstein’s remarks is a kind of pragmatic critique – those pictures have their meaning in relationship to particular forms of life, but insisting on them as pictures obscures their behavioral and practical content, so that there’s a (necessary?) obfuscation involved in thinking that your picture has ‘solved all the problems’ or ‘explained everything.’ All actual pictures are as of this writing incomplete in application and only applied by way of heavily contextualized human experiential and behavioral ways of relating to the world, etc.

So Wittgenstein has some preference, I think, for authorities which say “do this, live your life this way” over authorities which say “here is how things are.”

But there are lots of stupid forms of life and action too. There are good and bad theories and good and bad practices, as we judge them.

Wittgenstein sometimes represents himself in the Lectures on Religious Belief as a kind of scientific man who nonetheless thinks that religious beliefs have a kind of internal practical harmony, play a role in organizing the lives, thoughts, and actions of people who have them. Because this is so, he thinks, perhaps, that we err in thinking that these beliefs are contradicted by their implausibility from a scientific or empirical viewpoint. (Putting aside some much deeper issues about what it is for two people to be contradicting each other.)

I am suspicious of this self-representation. It is true that there are a number of purely ‘logical in the broad sense’ issues that are brought out by these discussions. But then by focusing on religion as a contrasting case, he has to also try to make some sense out of what the religious believer does and thinks. If there was nothing to this perspective, or if it were repugnant to him for some reason, I want to say, it wouldn’t serve his purposes. He has to draw a picture of a form of life that is different but in some sense interesting/valuable/worthy of respect/able to stand on its own. But in doing that he is at least implicitly engaging in apologetics.

In which case he’s not a purely scientific man after all.

So I’m trying to say something like: I don’t find W’s treatment of these issues completely coherent unless we assume that there’s at least a kind of crypto-Christianity, Christian sympathizing, lurking in the background, but in that case his portrayal of his own subject position – at least in some of the passages we’ve been considering on belief in the last judgment and resurrection – is actually misleading. It depends on the fiction of considering different forms of life from an as it were neutral point of view.

Whereas actually the desire to bracket off religious forms of life as something separate and different is itself already a manifestation of the religious impulse.


One comment on “The Separation of Holy Things: Postscript

  1. seancstidd says:

    I thought this bit on Duncan Richter’s blog was useful in connection with this post:

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