The Just Balance, Chapter Two

Winch’s book follows the development of Simone Weil’s thought as a philosopher over the course of her life. This is not an idiosyncratic approach: Weil was trained as an academic philosopher and supported herself in part by teaching philosophy throughout her adult life. But the carefulness of thought and logical precision philosophy calls for don’t always square easily with the felt reality of the divine; and much of Simone Weil’s enduring interest comes from the religious insight of her later years. Winch is very sensitive to this tension between ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ and indeed one of his central goals in the book is to explore that tension as he tries to elucidate Weil’s thought.

Chapter Two deals with her student dissertation and other early writings on Descartes. Winch presents Weil as here starting along the path of a far-reaching critique of Descartes’ thought, partly conducted as a “meditation” in the Cartesian style. These are some key points of the view Weil comes to in her early transformative retracing of Descartes’ introspective journey:

  1. Instead of Je pense, donc je suis she affirms Je puis, donc je suis – “I can, therefore I am.” It is in the capability for action that we discover our own existence.
  2. Thought itself is best understood as a form of action: “Existing, thinking, knowing are merely aspects of a single reality: pouvoir.” Thought for her in this early work is something like the purest and freest ability to act that we have – as opposed to action to the body, which is subject to the contingencies of the body’s cooperation. So her formula is in one way a reaffirmation of Descartes’ famous slogan, but one which understands thought itself as a form of action, rather than as something like the faculty of representation, or as the subjective component of our experiences.
  3. Activity in general and thought as particular are always (discovered to be?) internally ordered. Winch notes: “[I]n her “Reply to a Letter from Alain,” written in 1935, [Weil] wrote that Descartes, between writing…the [Rules for the Direction of the Mind] and the Discourse on Method, somehow went off the rails. He failed to prevent the order he had discovered from becoming “a thing instead of an idea”; which is what happens, she continued, when one tries to express a series by means of a sign and thus represents it as a reality distinct from the terms that compose it.” Weil thought, or was expressing thoughts moving in the direction of the thought, that the conception of method expressed in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, which “is concerned with establishing a proper order between elements that are in some sense already given,” but that the hypostatization or reification of such an order (“the” method, the universal framework of thinking prior to the activity of thinking), is a mistake. Winch thinks that this is partly what Weil had in mind when she wrote in an early notebook that Descartes was “much too ambitious.”

There are two things in Winch’s assessment of this view that interest me here. The first is his critique of the second point above, a critique which he thinks Simone Weil herself started to undertake shortly after the early work here under discussion. Thinking of thought as free action and bodily action as subject to contingency (hasard) is not really an adequate description of either. On the one hand, ordinary activity is not ordinarily experienced or undertaken as subject to contingency at all. When we flip a light switch or pound a nail, the possibility that the wires might short-circuit or the hammer break isn’t normally taken into account: we just do the activity assuming that the world will cooperate with our will. While it may be true that we know in some sense that these things can happen, still it is most often the case that they play no role in our activity at all: we act in a way that in some sense takes the world’s cooperation for granted, and in fact normally receives it. So our supposed boundedness by contingency only becomes a practical matter when we need to be especially careful for some reason or when the wires or hammer-handle do in fact break down in the course of our work. On the other hand, thought itself is actually much more subject to contingency than either Descartes’ or Weil’s early view of it assumes: we fail to remember things, fail to draw obvious conclusions, miscalculate, get distracted, are blinded by our prejudices, and so forth all the time, in just the same way that hammers break and wires short-circuit. So thought is perfectly free when nothing goes wrong, but then so can be bodily actions of types we have mastered; and thought can fail and be subject to hasard just as bodily action can.

The second is that Winch connects Weil even at this early stage with a broad philosophical orientation one can find in Winch’s own work, in the later Wittgenstein, and in Dewey, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Collingwood as well. This is an orientation which looks at thinking itself as an activity – something we do – and at ‘theory’ (perhaps even ‘logic’) as something which in some sense emerges out of our thinking practices, perhaps gradually restructuring them through our continued development of our thought along theoretical lines, but neither replacing them wholesale nor providing any sort of a priori framework into which our thoughts can be as it were fit prior to actually thinking them.

In her early notebooks Weil wrote: “There is no way of opening broad vistas which the mind can observe without entering them. One must enter the subject before one can see anything. This is true of speculation, even in its purest form: im Anfang war die Tat.

In terms of Winch’s discussion of Weil’s early views the road to this position runs as follows. If thinking itself is fundamentally understood as a type of activity, and if the structure of activities is conceived as in some sense internal to – emergent from? – acting, then there is a sense in which we only learn what it is to think by being initiated and guided in various already extant forms of thought. Of course we can innovate; but we get into a position to innovate only by first learning what the existing territory is like and then either forging new paths or opening up new vistas within this ‘space.’ Since the order of thought is internal to our thinking activity, yet also emergent from actually engaging our capability to think – that is, from thinking – there is no universal method or logic in the broad sense which organizes our thoughts in advance of our thinking them. Serious thought about any subject does not and can not proceed ex nihilo.

Winch defends something like this view in chapter two of The Just Balance:

Descartes’ over-ambition lay in supposing he had a method for discovering the truth of a kind which could replace, wholesale, existing methods of discovery already in use, and which would legitimate wholesale skepticism concerning the results of those existing methods. By contrast, “criticism” has to be applied to existing methods and results…We cannot reflect discriminatingly on existing given results while at the same time rejecting wholesale the existing methods of inquiry which have produced those results…because… the significance of the results can only be understood by someone with a grasp of the kind of inquiry from which they spring. Philosophy is no “pure intellectual inquiry” of the type Descartes envisaged; and there is no such thing. There are only particular inquiries the forms of which are historically shaped. Philosophers can and should reflect on the adequacy of such particular historical forms; but if they try to dispense with them all, they will necessarily lose their grip on the concept of “adequacy” in this context.

This is a very interesting passage. One way of glossing what is being said would run like this: to engage in philosophy of history, say, it’s not sufficient to reflect in some abstracted way on the subject. (“As time goes on, various events occur; these events leave physical traces; the job of the historian is to reconstruct the events that occurred using the physical traces they left.”) Rather, you need to have done at least some history, and having done this, you may be drawn to notice certain patterns of historical reasoning, certain commonalities in the sorts of things that count to historians as evidence, certain recurring types of historical narrative, and so on. If you can articulate those features in a way which illuminates the subject then you can be a good philosopher of history. And it shouldn’t really be surprising if some indifferent historians are quite good at the philosophy of history, just as some excellent historians are probably not so good at the philosophy of history. Doing something well, even something which is fundamentally a type of thinking, does not make one good at reflecting on the structure of what one is doing; and likewise some people are quite good at grasping what is going on in an activity in a general way without being particularly good at it themselves, like great batting coaches in baseball who were indifferent hitters.

This strikes me as a fair enough characterization of the “philosophy of x” subfields; but what about epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics? This question immediately brings the question of whether there is/are some ‘distinctive subject matter(s) for philosophy’ or ‘specifically philosophical domain(s) of inquiry’ in its train; and also the question of the status of the various “historically shaped particular inquiries” internal to the subject of philosophy itself.

Winch himself, like Wittgenstein, tended towards negative assessments in connection with these questions; I am not sure that is true of Weil. But in spite of that I do think that Winch does well to highlight this tendency in Weil’s thought so early on in the book. It remains one central thread of her thinking all the way through, and by tracing it Winch manages to produce, through a careful reading of Weil’s work, an extremely interesting way of thinking about the epistemology of religion, in which our points of contact with supernatural justice (and thus the love of God and our neighbor) are indicated as certain kinds of moments in and interruptions of the ‘natural’ course of our dealings with our fellow human beings. Hopefully we will be able to bring this out more clearly as we move through the book.


The Just Balance, Chapter One

Peter Winch’s Simone Weil: The Just Balance was one of the important books of graduate school for me. I am now reading it with a student who has done some work on Wittgenstein and who is independently interested in Simone Weil’s thought. I am going to try to write a post on each chapter for the blog; we will see how that goes.

I read this book with Winch for a Philosophy of Religion class. I wrote a fairly good if overly personal paper on it, the philosophy mixed up with an extended interpretation of Luke 10:25-42 (the connections Simone Weil draws between affliction, attention, and charity receiving light from and perhaps shedding light upon the juxtaposition of the story of the Good Samaritan with that of Mary and Martha) and the entirety of Isaac Peretz’ story “If Not Higher” appended to the conclusion as a kind of example of “earthly things [as] the criterion of spiritual things” (just go read it if you haven’t, it’s better than anything you’ll find on this blog).

There is a lot going on in The Just Balance. If I had to briefly characterize its overall thrust, I would say that it is an extended essay in the epistemology of religion. Winch traces the development of several important lines of Simone Weil’s thought from her early, more obviously philosophical work as it extends first into social theory and then into religious writing. He writes: “Often her religious observations are continuous with, or developments of, ways of thinking which earlier had not had this religious dimension, at least not obviously or to the same degree.”

Winch takes a very cautious approach to Weil’s thought in this book. This leads to a portrayal which is in certain respects one-sided, although Winch is very clear about that one-sidedness throughout the book.

There is a way, for example, in which one can gain a pretty fair perspective on at least some strands of Weil’s religious and social writing by representing her as a kind of anti-Nietzsche. On this view we might characterize her as essentially agreeing with Nietzsche (and Augustine and the Reformers, perhaps) that the will to power (gravity, force that turns people into things, etc.) is the governing mechanism of the human world, but standing as she does with the afflicted rather than ‘life-affirmation,’ interprets what Nietzsche sees as weakness and corruption as the point of entry for supernatural grace, divine love, and higher justice into human relations. Like Nietzsche she develops this metaphysic and her corresponding value judgments into some interesting essays on social theory, a ‘Christian’ counterpoint to Arendt, Habermas, Foucault, etc. that is seriously in dialogue with (and was in fact part of) their tradition.

That is not Winch’s way with her at all; in fact at many points in the book he critically engages the tendency towards this sort of “metaphysicalizing” (maybe it’s lazy to use that word here? I don’t have a better one offhand) tendency in Weil to try to recover what he sees as the genuine philosophical insights that underlie these occasional adventures into (what I think he saw as) overstatement.

The tension of this approach makes itself especially felt in the later chapters, in the following way: if these uses of language were only “metaphysical,” Winch would I think simply try to have taken them apart to try to find the interesting philosophy (as he saw it) underneath – or just tried to show them to be wind eggs. But the “metaphysical” turns of phrase in question are also, I think, used to communicate religious ideas and feelings for which Winch has considerably more sympathy. So much later in the book, in Chapter 14, we find him writing:

I have throughout [this book] emphasized a particular philosophical theme concerning what I have called concept formation. And at more than one point I have treated ideas which quite obviously have a strong religious significance for her in a determinedly “secular” way. This has been, in a way, all the more absurd in that the frequently striking and beautiful character of these ideas is entirely due to the intensely religious attitude to the world which they express.

I freely admit the perversity of this procedure. It is justified only to the extent that I have succeeded in drawing attention to a series of links between different aspects of Simone Weil’s thinking that are not usually noticed; and to the extent to which these links are interesting in themselves.

As I recall I felt that he did succeed in this task, and hopefully we’ll be able to bring some of that out as we read through the book.

But I am also having a certain kind of trouble returning to this text. At the time I was working with Winch I often felt that I was stumbling lost and blind through a kind of spiritual wasteland. In that context The Just Balance gave me a rare opportunity to connect religious ideas to my own experiences and activity – a hand up for a drowning man. But this meant that the book was also serving a function for me that was not strictly philosophical at all – I was using Winch and Weil to refine my own sense of what might be called the sacred dimension of human existence.

When Winch wrote, therefore, that

My own procedure…has been to try for as long as possible to display these late thoughts in “secular” philosophical terms. This is not because I regard such terms as in any way more acceptable than the religious language which she increasingly speaks. It is in part, I expect, because I feel much more at home operating with such terms. But, more important, it is also because I have wanted to see how far one could go in terms acceptable to philosophers who do not wish to, or find themselves unable to, use the language of religion.

I was when I first read the book very much in the audience this targets, a person of some spiritual sensitivity and religious yearning, often sad when reflecting on this charnel house of a planet we inhabit, the son and grandson of atheistic men of science, a student of philosophy. And from that point of view I felt that the book was a great help.

But it would nonetheless be almost two decades after this work that I finally heard the call.

For me at least, from this side of the water the relationship to certain forms of language is very different. So I now find myself sometimes impatient with Peter’s carefulness; sometimes regarding the important dimensions of Weil’s thought as theological rather than philosophical and so being tempted to regard his precision as punctilio; sometimes even regarding the distinction between secular and sacred itself as entirely false, a relic of the ‘enlightenment’ aimed at putting off our encounter with truth, which entirely undermines the rhetorical space The Just Balance tries to occupy.

So we’ll see how it goes. I still feel very grateful for the time I spent with this book and I’m glad to be able to share that with my students.

New Directions – Fall Reading Group

The scope of the blog is going to broaden a bit now. If you’re just joining us, I think the most interesting philosophical post so far is “Ein Zeichen sind wir” and that the most interesting interpretive post so far is “The First Rule of Wittgenstein Club.” Both of these deal with the Tractatus rather than the Investigations. I do hope to come back to the Investigations in more detail at some point in the future.

However, this term I am supervising a directed reading of Simone Weil and Peter Winch’s book on her, “The Just Balance.” So you can expect substantial discussion of both over the next few months.

P.S. If, like me, you sometimes wander the internet in search of humorous diversion, the funniest post is the one immediately prior.

An Excerpt from Plato’s “Philosopher”

A papyrus manuscript, purported to contain a fragment of Plato’s long-lost Philosopher, the sequel to Sophist and Statesman, was recently discovered quite by accident in the library of an old Ribchester manor. A Bag of Raisins has obtained access to a translation and offers it for your edification and amusement:

Eleatic Stranger [? – identity of speaker here inferred from context]: …not even the student of nature in general, for this one is not the philosopher either, but rather again the natural scientist, in the broadest sense of that name.

Young Socrates: That is true.

Eleatic Stranger: Where then shall we seek the philosopher’s art, if the philosopher is neither a type of mathematician nor a type of scientist, and among the scientists, neither a student of nature nor a student of mind?

Young Socrates: It seems that there is nothing left for the philosopher’s art to be. For, having agreed that philosophy was a form of knowing or believing, we examined all the disciplines which could fairly be said to be forms of knowledge or belief, dividing them carefully so as to leave nothing out. Yet the more carefully they were divided, the farther they seemed from the ideal of the true philosopher; but even the broadest categories were concerned with something other than the subject of wisdom itself.

Eleatic Stranger: So it does seem. And yet…

Young Socrates: You have spied another approach?

Eleatic Stranger: Consider this. We have examined all the forms of knowledge that concern themselves with that which is. Perhaps the philosopher’s art is concerned rather with that which is not?

Young Socrates: This is a strange suggestion. Surely, if philosophical knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, it must be concerned with the highest sort of being, and not with nothing.

Eleatic Stranger: This was what we assumed from the outset, and it still seems a noble saying. Yet when all the forms of knowledge concerning that which is are found to be something other than wisdom, the only possibility remaining is that it is a knowing of that which is not, if indeed such a form of knowledge can be said to be at all.

Young Socrates: I am at a loss to know how to proceed. It seems that the head of Protagoras has risen to lecture us once more.

Eleatic Stranger: Then we must be sure to avoid his counsel! But listen, young Socrates. We know that those who maintain beliefs concerning that which is maintain them in the form of sayings, do they not?

Young Socrates: They do.

Eleatic Stranger: In what form then does one maintain a belief concerning that which is not?

Young Socrates: I cannot say.

Eleatic Stranger: How can one maintain a belief in the form of a saying which is not a saying?

Young Socrates (laughs): One cannot…save only in this one way, which your own clever saying shows, o Stranger. One must maintain one’s belief in the form of a contradiction, which says and does not say at the same time.

Eleatic Stranger: Just so. And this, I believe, is the only place left to us to seek the form of knowledge peculiar to the philosopher, in the art of maintaining contradictions.

Young Socrates: Say on.

Eleatic Stranger. So let us consider once again, young Socrates. In what ways might we justly divide the art of maintaining contradictions?

Young Socrates: Are not all contradictions identical in what they say? What divisions are possible here?

Eleatic Stranger: Those concerning, not the content of the contradiction, but the way in which it is maintained. and the purposes to which it is put.

Young Socrates: I see.

Eleatic Stranger: The division of the art of maintaining contradictions is thus fourfold. We must determine, first, with respect to the manner in which the contradiction is maintained, whether seriously or in jest; and second, with respect to the purposes of its maintenance, whether the contradiction is maintained for theoretical or practical purposes, that is, as an adjunct to our understanding of the world, or as aimed at altering our life in that world.

Young Socrates: I understand.

Eleatic Stranger: And now, at last, we are in sight of our quarry.

Young Socrates: Say on.

Eleatic Stranger: The one who maintains contradictions in jest for practical purposes is perhaps the easiest to identify; is he not the joke-teller, the comedian?

Young Socrates: So he is.

Eleatic Stranger: Then who is the one who maintains contradictions in jest for theoretical purposes?

Young Socrates: I am not sure who would do such a thing. Assuming contradictions had any value for the understanding, why would one not maintain them seriously? In truth, I am confused as to how one can ‘maintain contradictions for theoretical purposes’ at all.

Eleatic Stranger: Do you not remember our old friend Gorgias, who argued that “nothing is, and if anything were, one could not think of it, and if anyone could think of anything, they could not speak of it to another”? And who from those beliefs as a foundation claimed authority to teach about all things, and did in fact teach his students how to think and speak about them?

Young Socrates: I do.

Eleatic Stranger: And when pressed, who did not deny that his beliefs were contradictory, but contented himself with confuting us, sometimes with our own arguments turned about, sometimes with skepticism about our premises? And yet this state of utter deprivation in relation to the truth seemed to him satisfactory; indeed he pitied us for our thought that any of these questions might be resolved and for our refusal to simply enjoy the free play of language, and to apply a kind of tactical mastery of that play to debate in the law courts or the seduction of innocents, as it suited us.

Young Socrates: I see now what you are getting at; and this is yet another guise in which we have encountered the Sophist. For it is he, the rhetorician, who maintains contradictions in jest for theoretical purposes.

Eleatic Stranger: So it is. But now I ask you to consider the serious maintainers of contradictions.

Young Socrates: A strange lot indeed, who maintain seriously something which cannot be true.

Eleatic Stranger: So they are. And yet, many of the most profound minds of humanity, men who have not succumbed to frivolity and who persist in their belief that something higher binds and guides us, reside in these groups.

Young Socrates: Let us discover then who they are.

Eleatic Stranger: Those who maintain contradictions seriously for practical purposes are generally religious men of sincere belief. They will say, for instance, that there are beings utterly beyond the world who act in the world, or that beings with an origin in divine goodness can create evil, and things of this sort. When confronted with the puzzles these ways of talking engender, such men will argue with you for a time; but eventually when driven into a corner they will not give up their belief, simply claiming that such things are mysteries that must be believed, that we will perhaps understand when our souls enter into the truth after death, but which are in a way beyond us to fully comprehend in this world.

Young Socrates: Some of our circle make fun of such men, for their poor arguments and unwillingness to be led past a certain point by reason.

Eleatic Stranger: I know those of whom you speak. For myself, I consider it ignoble to mock anyone of sincere commitment, especially since the more intelligent of these men are perfectly well aware where reason leaves off and mystery begins, so to speak. But tell me, is not mystic a suitable name for this type, he who maintains a contradiction seriously for practical purposes?

Young Socrates: It is suitable enough, although in truth many religious men of ordinary temperament would also fit the description, were they not overcome by shame at the apparent difficulties which pertain to their way of speech.

Eleatic Stranger: So indeed. At last, then, we reach our quarry, the philosopher. If the comedian is he who maintains contradictions in jest for practical purposes, and the sophist he who maintains them in jest for theoretical purposes, and the mystic he who maintains them seriously for practical purposes, that leaves just one quadrant open.

Young Socrates: And is this where we find our philosopher?

Eleatic Stranger: So it is: the philosopher is he who maintains contradictions seriously for theoretical purposes.

Young Socrates: This has the ring of truth; and yet it is a hard saying to understand.

Theaetetus: More than hard! For what serious theoretical purpose can maintaining a contradiction serve? One can understand the viewpoint of the rhetoricians, who seek only local advantage in contests of words, and view the contradiction now as a useful tool, now as a dangerous trap to be avoided, yet never one to be taken seriously with respect to its content. Yet surely the philosopher, the one possessed of wisdom, will not maintain a saying which says nothing, for the purposes of understanding. Perhaps you yourself are one of these rhetoricians, o Stranger of Elea, if you lead us down this path in jest.

Eleatic Stranger: No jest, young Theaetetus. But consider your master Socrates here. He is well known for bringing out the contradictory beliefs of those who come to him for wisdom, and for showing them that contrary to what they thought they are saying nothing at all. Yet in order to do this he must maintain their contradictions seriously long enough to make it clear to those who maintain them that they are contradictions – that they may see their opposed ideas as the ‘wind eggs’ they are.

Theaetetus: That much is true.

Eleatic Stranger: So here is the serious theoretical purpose to which maintaining a contradiction can be put: to show someone else who maintains that contradiction that there is actually no content to their own belief, and that the sayings they maintain say nothing at all.

Socrates: You are wise, Eleatic Stranger: but in this, I think, your wisdom seems peculiarly one-sided.

Eleatic Stranger: How so?

Socrates: You have indeed divined part of my art, and if you wish to call it the philosopher’s art, I will for the time being not object. And yet the way you characterize it cannot be correct.

Eleatic Stranger: Why not?

Socrates: You say that, as a philosopher, what I do is to draw out people’s contradictory beliefs, and maintain them in a way that shows them contradictory, so that the one who believes those things might realize them to be empty, and leave off believing them?

Eleatic Stranger: So I do.

Socrates: What then do you say about my own state of mind as I do this?

Eleatic Stranger: What do I need to say, beyond what I have already said? I have described your purposes, your manner, and the content of what you maintain all three.

Socrates: I think that you will not escape Theaetetus’ objection so easily as he was willing to let you off. For consider this. You say that I ‘maintain contradictions seriously for theoretical purposes.’ Yet if I know they are contradictions, how can I maintain them seriously at all? In this case, although my aim differs from what Protagoras, Gorgias, and their ilk are doing, nonetheless I do not maintain the contradiction seriously in my employment of it for theoretical purposes. No, in this case I am a kind of a rhetorician of the good, maintaining contradictions in jest for the benefit, I imagine, of those who speak with me.

Eleatic Stranger: I suppose it is so.

Socrates: Then further consider this. Let us say that this supposition is wrong, and that in spite of the oddity of maintaining a belief I know to be false, I somehow do so. You have granted that one practicing the philosopher’s art as you characterize it does not seek to impart this belief, but rather aims at a change in the character of his interlocutor, namely, to bring them from ignorance of their ignorance to knowledge of their ignorance, or something to that effect. Is this not so?

Eleatic Stranger: It is.

Socrates: And is the effecting of a change in someone’s character a theoretical or a practical purpose?

Eleatic Stranger: We would have to say practical.

Socrates: So in this case again the speaker you imagine, whether myself or someone else, does not fall into the category of philosopher, but that of mystic.

Eleatic Stranger: So it would seem.

Socrates: I think you will find, o Stranger, that if we follow your proposed divisions anyone who appears to be practicing the philosophical art must turn out to be either rhetorician or mystic. Nor does it seem likely that we will find one who is an exception to this rule; for one who genuinely believed a contradiction and sought to maintain it seriously for theoretical purposes would want to convince others of its truth, which would mean that he did not know it to be a contradiction at all, but rather thought it plainly true; and in so thinking presumably thought himself some sort of mathematician or scientist, all of which types you quite ably proved to be something other than practitioners of the philosophical art.

Eleatic Stranger: For the time being I can muster no response.

Socrates: It was inevitable that we should wind up here, having assigned the knowledge of the good to a subsection of the sciences of mind. For only with some prior accounting of the good could we distinguish between the philosopher’s art and the rhetorician’s. Let us therefore reconsider the path we took….

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.

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.

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.