Wittgenstein

11-19-01

Bill Honsberger

Wittgenstein

A) Given our assigned readings concerning Wittgenstein’s “views” of philosophy, language and the mind, how would you relate these to Malcolm’s answer to the question he himself poses, viz. “Does Wittgenstein have a religious point of view in his approach to philosophy?

I wish I had known about Wittgenstein’s religious point of view years ago. I probably would have read him much earlier. Before I read any of his books I only knew that he was difficult to read and understand and therefore I avoided him. Now after reading him myself I realize that I was half right; Wittgenstein was difficult but he was also well worth reading, and trying to understand him. Having prattled on for a bit, let me answer the question.

Simply put, Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy is that philosophers in their attempts to understand the meaning of things and relations have gone into a territory that is un-explorable. By this he means that in their misguided attempt to understand why, or for what cause, or what is the essence is of a thing or a relationship, that they take perfectly good language and take it “on holiday”. He argues that if one were to do a “grammatical investigation” of the premises on each side of a philosophical argument, than one would discover that there really is no argument at all. This means that when a philosopher takes an ordinary word and seeks out deep meaning in it and uses that meaning to buttress an “argument”, it really is much to do about nothing. In fact for Wittgenstein the problems that have haunted western philosophy for over two thousands years have been a huge mistake. Using his methodology he believed that one could dismiss the arguments and they would simply “melt” away.

How does this relate to Wittgenstein’s “alleged” religious point of view as explained by Malcolm? Malcolm argues that Wittgenstein’s reduction of philosophy to things which cannot and must be explained is perfectly compatible with Wittgenstein’s religious sensibility. Malcolm uses the story of Job as an illustration of this point. Malcolm argues that God is angry with Job because he asks why he is suffering. Malcolm believes that this illustrates that the concept of God is itself infused with a sense of that there is no need of explanation. To cite as regular religious people do, that something is the “will of God”, is used in regular conversation to indicate that it is beyond explanation, and that in this sense Wittgenstein’s own disdain for explanations in philosophy easily translates into an equal disdain for explanations in religious issues. As we will see later, I disagree rather strongly with this type of religious conviction, but nevertheless I think that Wittgenstein’s philosophy and religious commitment are parallel here.

As to the second point, what is Wittgenstein’s understanding of language? He understands language in a non-essential way. This is to say that words do not have some deep essential meaning inherent to themselves. Rather they have meaning in the way they are used in ordinary language. In this case language can be used in many diverse ways and individual words can be used in different senses and contexts. Language usage gives rise to language “games” and families. By games Wittgenstein meant that one can understand what people mean in a sentence by showing how a word is used in a different context. By families he meant that different contexts use different “families” or groups of words which are related to another by usage in different settings. For example medical contexts use a different vocabulary than is used in military settings. Thus the meanings of words may change depending on when and where and why they are used. This is a rejection of the Augustinian view of language which argues that word are extensively pointed out and used to that end.

How does this relate to Wittgenstein’s religious point of view? As Malcolm points out Wittgenstein believes that philosophy and religion are differing arenas with different languages and “forms of life”.

I see this as similar to what Kant did in the three critiques, separating what can be known in the scientific realm of space and time from what can be believed in the realm of faith. For Wittgenstein, faith is not about doctrines, dogma, and rationality. Like Kierkegaard, it might even be opposed to philosophical presentations. Instead, faith/religion is something that changes ones life. It is something that is expressed in actions, not in doctrines. On a personal level here, I find his point weak but his personal life here is fascinating. The weakness of argument from my perspective is that religious practice is contingent upon religious doctrine. It is possible to be inconsistent, in fact it seems to me that most people are, but logically practice and teachings are inseparable. In the Christian faith, it is as Wittgenstein noted and seemed to live out that it is incumbent upon the rich person to give his fortune to the poor and follow Jesus. Without the teaching given by Jesus at this point, then how would Wittgenstein have known to do this? Without clear teaching and/or argumentation, Wittgenstein conceivably could have stolen from the poor and enriched himself, and this would have had the same religious merit as the other action. In a similar way the teaching of the Buddha concerning non-violence had to be taught prior to their being enacted. Once the teaching leading to action point is established, then the problem comes for people like Wittgenstein to decide why he would take some statements from Jesus as proper to believe and act on (the ethical teachings) and ignore others (statements about his deity, unique revelatory message and so on). But it seems clear to me that his understanding of language does not preclude Wittgenstein from at least taking seriously part of the New Testament account of Jesus. It is a whole other issue as to whether Kant or Hume’s prescriptions against supernatural accounts (which influenced Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein and others) are valid, but that is for another paper.

Did Wittgenstein’s view of the mind influence this argument in any way? This is an interesting question, given that his argument against the traditional way of understanding the inner/outer distinction can be interpreted as an argument against souls or minds. However it is not clear at all that this is the best way to understand Wittgenstein’s point. His point was not to attack a metaphysical belief and language that is common among religious people, but rather to address the way philosophers have used this “distinction” to buttress metaphysical arguments, which Wittgenstein tried to destroy. Malcolm points out though that the mind might also be synonymous for the intellect, which is not what Wittgenstein wanted to express as it relates to religion. Over and over again Malcolm quotes out Wittgenstein’s insistence upon action over intellectual rational discourse. Not that discourse is bad, or out of place, but it does not do what Wittgenstein thinks that religion must do. Like the Apostle James, and even more so, Wittgenstein sees that faith without works is dead. I was impressed by his thought and his actions living out these same thoughts. Not that Wittgenstein discounted all doctrinal issues, as it is clear from Malcolm’s quotes that Wittgenstein believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but he certainly comes at his conclusion from a non-dogmatic or theological way.

In summary, does Wittgenstein have a religious point of view concerning his philosophy? My simplistic answer is that he does, that this is successfully shown by the quotes that Malcolm gave. In addition I would argue that similar to Kant, Wittgenstein separates what can be known (science, empirical data) from what can be believed (faith in the cross, resurrection, etc). But perhaps unlike Kant, Wittgenstein believes that a response from faith is not grounded in the non-empirical world, but rather in the real world. This religiously based response is not in contradiction to his philosophy, but drives him to righteous action his entire life. One might also say that his aversion to philosophical argumentation was analogous to his aversion to religious doctrines. He preferred action and service to talk. You might say he was much more “Hebrew” here than “Greek”. It was not his goal to sit around and ponder “deep” ideas, but rather clear them out of the way and instead do what is right.

B) 1) Briefly characterize the disagreement between Malcolm and Winch; 2) With whom do you tend to side? Why?

It seems to me that Winch’s chief complaint about how Malcolm says about Wittgenstein is that Malcolm is much too sure of his thesis. Winch appears to moderate each of Malcolm’s claims and show that it can be interpreted in different ways. The best illustration of this is seen where Winch quotes Malcolm’s four analogies and shows how it can be seen in a different way. Let me illustrate. Winch summarizes his argument against the first analogy by saying:

“As Malcolm brings out, the attitude of acceptance of one’s fate as ‘the will of God’, an attitude which neither pretends to provide any explanation of that fate nor seeks to find one, characteristically goes along with an attitude of gratitude for life. But acceptance of things as they are, and recognition that, beyond a certain point, no explanation can significantly be required as to why they are like that, certainly need not be accompanied by gratitude.”

Winch goes on to quote another passage which he feels is contrary to Malcolm’s point. On the other hand Winch affirms that Malcolm’s first analogy has some redeeming value. He says: “It is entirely possible that a study of Wittgenstein’s treatment of the constant search for explanation that is typical of so much of our lives, his insistence that ’explanations come to an end’, will have a liberating effect on some people and enable them to take certain religious attitudes seriously in a way they would not have been able to before. Of course, that would still be a very long way indeed from acquiring any sort of religious faith, but it could open the way to it.”

This quote strikes me as a bit disingenuous. It did not seem that Malcolm was trying to make Wittgenstein into a Lutheran scholar, but rather as a person who did wrestle with questions about Christianity, and certainly wrestled with ethical concerns arising from the Gospel accounts. His quotes about the relative value of differing religious points of view show merely Wittgenstein’s disdain for doctrinal positioning and his penchant for ethical service as the mark of true religiosity. Now I might argue with Wittgenstein as to the logical consistency of his view and in fact how many religious view, in particular eastern views, lead away from ethical concerns by postulating that the present world is an illusion or Maya. But this in no way proves Winch’s point. It merely means that Wittgenstein was not a theologian, and that Malcolm’s claim is not significantly damaged by the argument by Winch.

In many ways I think that the dispute between the Winch and Malcolm was merely a matter of degree and Winch gives cause for that in his conclusion. More importantly I think that Malcolm’s point about explanations being a major source for disdain for Wittgenstein, which makes it perfectly sensible to see the connection between his disdain in theological as well as philosophical arenas. Although I am extremely uncomfortable in saying that either man is “wrong” is this discussion, give that my knowledge of Wittgenstein’s writings is so slim, the evidence as I see it leans to Malcolm’s understanding of the issue.

Love at the end of the rainbow