Thoughts on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion

This is actually a comment I made here – but I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for some time, so I’m reproducing it here.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy of religion (if it can even be called that – his writings on religion are very scattered and don’t form one precise picture) is, more or less, fideism. This is likely a result of two things: first, his Roman Catholic education. John Haldane notes that:

‘First, Wittgenstein had been raised as a Catholic and in that period catechetics, the teaching of Catholic doctrine, favoured a question and answer style that derived from scholasticism but only gave abbreviated formulae and not arguments. He would have found this a betrayal of the religious quest and could not fail to have been reminded of it by the lists of questions and answers in the Summa. Second, In the first decades of the twentieth century there was a good deal of triumphalist Catholic apologetics in which people cited Aquinas as if he had an answer to everything and contained no errors or omissions. This again would have struck him as profoundly unphilosophical and also unspiritual.’ (from here, a brilliant interview)

Secondly, his love of Kierkegaard:

‘Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century.’ (As quoted in “Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard on the ethico-religious” by Roe Fremstedal in Ideas in History Vol. 1 (2006) {stolen from wikiquotes}

Taking the two of those together, it’s very easy to see why Wittgenstein takes the route that Christianity is more about practice than belief that can be rationally grounded in philosophical proofs (IE Aquinas).

I said on twitter that I have three main objections to his PoR – I’ll confine the rest of my comments to those three for brevity.

(a) A misunderstanding of Kierkegaard and (b) the relation of history to truth (Lessing)

Kierkegaard is profoundly misused by Wittgenstein – who builds on what he perceives to be Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ – i.e., the rejection of the need for rational proof the the affirmation of pure belief. Not only do we not need proof for faith, but faith as such isn’t even about ‘belief’ but about ethical practice.

The misunderstanding is this: Kierkegaard was not describing a fideistic ‘leap of faith’ but rather a rather stunning epsitemological move born out of wrestling with classical Christian ideas. I’ll let physicist/theologian T.F Torrance set Wittgenstein straight on Kierkegaard:

‘…(in ‘Philosophical Fragments’) Kierkegaard developed a sub-theme which turned out to have the greatest signifigance, the relation of truth to time, which had been conspicuously missing from Anselm’s thought. Behind Kierkegaard’s concern, as we can see from some of his other writings, lay his engagements with problems he found in Aristotle. Kant, Lessing and Hegel and the stimulation of some ideas he derived from Trendelenburg’s critique of Kantian notions of time. But what really gripped Kierkegaard and forced him to come to terms with it was the fact that in the Incarnation, “absolute” truth moved into time in Jesus Christ and became “historical fact”, which implies that we cannot know the truth except in a dynamic way involving a temporal or historical relation to it. If the truth has moved into time and become historical event, then movement or kinesis belongs to truth and has categorical significance.

In wrestling with this problem of transition Kierkegaard found he had to abandon a way of thinking from a point of absolute rest, and opt for a kinetic mode of reason with which to apprehend movement, continuty, dynamic truth, without resolving them into something quite different in terms of static necessities or timeless possibilites. He referred to his act of reason variously as a decision, a resolution or a leap, and spoke of faith as having the required condition.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 90)

(c) Dictotomization (my new word) of practive/belief

Wittgenstein’s error here is an old one – assuming that things that are distinct are opposed. Practice is better than only belief, so Christianity has to be more about practice than belief. Had he simply payed close attention to the Christian tradition, he would have found that the concerns he had were more than addressed by Christian thought, though not in his language. The classical Christian ethical tradition holds that ‘doing the good’ requires ‘knowing the good’ because our actions have as a ‘formal cause’ our desires and beliefs. Desire/belief effects practice, and practice effects desire/belief. Virtue ethics is an appropriate reference point here.

To be sure, the Christian faith is about affirming certain truths – we could rephrase that to ‘making truth claims’ in modern lingo. However, as Torrance showed above, these aren’t static timeless propositions that one merely assents to – the knowledge effects the desires, which effect the actions (praxis), which in turn effects the desires. The ethical dimension of Christianity is far more than Wittgenstein’s ‘meaning is use’ move.

EDIT: I made a comment (scroll down if you’re on the post or click on it to see comments) here:  which hopefully clarifies and fleshes out some of what I layed out here.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion

  1. chicagoja July 12, 2014 / 4:25 pm

    Nice commentary. However, terms like Christian faith, ideas or tradition are hard to define. Just ask the Catholics and the fundamentalists. Even ask the Baptist and the Southern Baptists, for that matter.

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    • whitefrozen July 12, 2014 / 9:06 pm

      The matter of definitions of terms within the realm of Christianity can indeed be a sticky problem.

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  2. Witty Ludwig July 12, 2014 / 7:21 pm

    I would love to make several comments on this post but sadly have neither the time nor the equipment (this brief message must come from my phone)– but I do feel are several misconceptions in this piece. I can only pick one, though:

    ” Wittgenstein’s error here is an old one – assuming that things that are distinct are opposed. Practice is better than only belief, so Christianity has to be more about practice than belief.”

    I don’t know many scholars, personally, I add, who would think this is a fair position to impose on Wittgenstein. I find this leap quite puzzling because in other posts you do seem very familiar with most parts of his corpus. It would help me to ask, if you don’t mind answering, are you religious yourself? Specifically: Christian? I haven’t read through all or even most of your posts before so sorry if it should be obvious to me. I ask because you also mentioned Haldane, who I don’t regard very highly.

    I thought it might also be worth adding that I wince slightly when you say he “misuses” Kierkegaard– he readily admitted that he found reading him difficult because he felt him to be “too deep”; rather, he held K. in such esteem for K.’s sincerity, that he felt him to be truly and ‘really religious’ .

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  3. Witty Ludwig July 12, 2014 / 7:40 pm

    I’m rereading the part on his misuse, I might be misinterpreting: are you actually working on the basis that Wittgenstein is taking Kierkegaard’s writings as a starting point (re leap of faith) and developing ideas from that as a platform? As opposed to W. being fascinated by K. himself as a ‘religious example’, if you like?

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  4. whitefrozen July 12, 2014 / 8:57 pm

    I appreciate the comment and moreso appreciate the pushback. I’ll try and answer your questions/concerns as best I can:

    ‘I don’t know many scholars, personally, I add, who would think this is a fair position to impose on Wittgenstein. I find this leap quite puzzling because in other posts you do seem very familiar with most parts of his corpus.’

    It may not agree with the scholarly consensus (and I’ll readily admit to having read very little W scholarship, aside from IEP/SEP articles and an article here and there in metaphysics books. However, based on my reading of his religious thought (which may be limited – I’m drawing mostly on ‘C/V’. I’ve not read a lot of his more obscure lectures/notebooks (psychology, mathematics, etc) I think it is fair to say that he regards practice as more important than ‘mere’ belief, and that he regards Christianity as primarily being a commitment to a way of life rather than a system of doctrines/beliefs. I think I am justified in holding to this position on textual grounds.

    ‘It would help me to ask, if you don’t mind answering, are you religious yourself? Specifically: Christian? I haven’t read through all or even most of your posts before so sorry if it should be obvious to me.’

    I am a practicing Christian – to avoid more rambling on my part in this comment, click on ‘What’s All This About’ at the top.

    ‘I thought it might also be worth adding that I wince slightly when you say he “misuses” Kierkegaard– he readily admitted that he found reading him difficult because he felt him to be “too deep”; rather, he held K. in such esteem for K.’s sincerity, that he felt him to be truly and ‘really religious’ ‘

    I think that W thought K was ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ (the quote marks are not derogatory) because K was more concerned with the overall moral and ethical orientation of one’s life than if they held to orthodoxy. Most of K’s writing was polemical against the (what he perceived to be) lukewarm Lutheran church of his day. Books like ;Works of Love’ support this position, in my opinion. K is far more interested in a life lived such that works of love flow from the person than if he holds to the right belief.

    ‘I’m rereading the part on his misuse, I might be misinterpreting: are you actually working on the basis that Wittgenstein is taking Kierkegaard’s writings as a starting point (re leap of faith) and developing ideas from that as a platform? As opposed to W. being fascinated by K. himself as a ‘religious example’, if you like?’

    Not in an axiomatic, analytical sense. I do not think W took K’;s ideas and built his own religious philosophy on them as a platform. I do believe that W took himself to be doing justice to the spirit of K, which involved true ‘religion’, and as I maintained above, religion involves an overall orientation of the life towards the good, the ethical – it has to be something that transforms one’s life into a life of new actions.

    Let me clarify the ‘leap of faith’ bit. I believe that W took K to be saying that faith and religious life in general is not based on beliefs based on rational evidence and proofs, but that faith and religious life are commitments to transformative ideas. The meaning of these ideas isn’t found in whether or not they are ‘true’ by way of verification but in how they aid in the transformation of the life of the believer in the community. So to W, he was (in my opinion) working in the spirit of K. The purpose of the Torrance quote was to show that that is a deep misunderstanding of K’s project.

    Hopefully that clears some things up, and I look forward to more feedback/pushback.

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    • Witty Ludwig July 14, 2014 / 5:29 am

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to each point; it has clarified much and I don’t think I’m far removed from your thoughts.

      “I think it is fair to say that he regards practice as more important than ‘mere’ belief, and that he regards Christianity as primarily being a commitment to a way of life rather than a system of doctrines/beliefs.”

      I personally think this creates a dichotomy where there isn’t in fact one; or, stresses the emphasis too much. The fragments we have in C/V are fascinating but I think, in the context of how we know he perceived religious belief / practice in LCoAP&RB, along with one or two letter exchanges between Sraffa and Smythies, along with conversations between Malcolm and Boukwsma (probably along with more, but these are the obvious pieces of text that spring to mind), I think point more to a picture where he feels that you would look to practice to see the ‘depth’ or how ‘serious’ (a favourite word of his, not mine) this person was. W. could not stand superficiality, glibness, shallowness, and I seem to remember him emphasising this point to Smythies when the latter announced his intention to become a Christian. (I’ve been meaning to put this letter on my blog in any case for general interest so will try to do so later this week.)
      — So my point here would be that I don’t think he regards practice as ‘more important’ or ‘better’ than ‘belief alone’ but points out that these beliefs, if truly, sincerely, and deeply held, influence the person’s behaviour, outlook on life, their life’s framework for reference. He alludes to this in the recorded Lectures and Conversations (that I mentioned above) with the passage regarding the person who lives their life believing in a ‘Last Judgement’. I’m sure not all Christian beliefs manifest themselves as obviously as others and I think, if we consider Christian culture today in England compared with the religious atmosphere in England in the early twentieth century, I think it’s fair to say that religious mores, specifically, Christian habits, were far more evident at this time giving him easier case examples than he would find today. You might well be familiar with everything I have said but I personally feel that suggesting, from this, that W. thinks practice *better* or *more important* risks obfuscating his real views– at least, the views he’s commonly supposed to have held!

      I only asked about your beliefs because you’re obviously writing, I would assume, from an “insider’s” perspective on what it’s like to have ‘true belief’ or ‘sincere belief’ without necessarily exhibiting these beliefs in practice; or, even if you did, knowing that your beliefs would be just as strong and sincere regardless of behavioural practice. Wittgenstein readily admits Christianity confuses and bewilders him, and so certainly would accept that he’s an outsider looking in. The point of difference in view might here with both parties being quietly confident with their position.

      ” I do believe that W took himself to be doing justice to the spirit of K, which involved true ‘religion’, and as I maintained above, religion involves an overall orientation of the life towards the good, the ethical – it has to be something that transforms one’s life into a life of new actions.

      Let me clarify the ‘leap of faith’ bit. I believe that W took K to be saying that faith and religious life in general is not based on beliefs based on rational evidence and proofs, but that faith and religious life are commitments to transformative ideas. The meaning of these ideas isn’t found in whether or not they are ‘true’ by way of verification but in how they aid in the transformation of the life of the believer in the community. So to W, he was (in my opinion) working in the spirit of K.”

      I do agree with what you say here and, undoubtedly, am not familiar enough with K.’s writings to nearly the same degree as you so feel I have to defer. My point I made earlier was that I had always received the impression that, in respect to K., Wittgenstein was more fascinated by him as a man and the picture of the man he gained from reading the works, rather than the works themselves and their message. Similar to Tolstoy. He loved what he read but not for the reasons the author would have necessarily imagined or agreed with. He seemed to do this a lot. His thoughts on Weininger’s ‘Sex and Character’ also spring to mind.

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      • whitefrozen July 14, 2014 / 11:56 am

        ‘I personally think this creates a dichotomy where there isn’t in fact one; or, stresses the emphasis too much. The fragments we have in C/V are fascinating but I think, in the context of how we know he perceived religious belief / practice in LCoAP&RB, along with one or two letter exchanges between Sraffa and Smythies, along with conversations between Malcolm and Boukwsma (probably along with more, but these are the obvious pieces of text that spring to mind), I think point more to a picture where he feels that you would look to practice to see the ‘depth’ or how ‘serious’ (a favourite word of his, not mine) this person was. W. could not stand superficiality, glibness, shallowness, and I seem to remember him emphasising this point to Smythies when the latter announced his intention to become a Christian. (I’ve been meaning to put this letter on my blog in any case for general interest so will try to do so later this week.)’

        A fair point. The dichotomy may not be as large as I’ve made it, but based on my reading, it seems a legitimate angle to pursue – it’s not an explicit dichotomy, I’ll grant, but it’s there nonetheless. I would be interested in that letter, though. I’ve not read any of his personal correspondences – it sounds as if it’d flesh out some of his thoughts more.

        ‘So my point here would be that I don’t think he regards practice as ‘more important’ or ‘better’ than ‘belief alone’ but points out that these beliefs, if truly, sincerely, and deeply held, influence the person’s behaviour, outlook on life, their life’s framework for reference. He alludes to this in the recorded Lectures and Conversations (that I mentioned above) with the passage regarding the person who lives their life believing in a ‘Last Judgement’. I’m sure not all Christian beliefs manifest themselves as obviously as others and I think, if we consider Christian culture today in England compared with the religious atmosphere in England in the early twentieth century, I think it’s fair to say that religious mores, specifically, Christian habits, were far more evident at this time giving him easier case examples than he would find today. You might well be familiar with everything I have said but I personally feel that suggesting, from this, that W. thinks practice *better* or *more important* risks obfuscating his real views– at least, the views he’s commonly supposed to have held!’

        Again, fair points. I’ll answer rather simply, by noting that I’m not sure the view he’s commonly supposed to have held are entirely correct, which has to do with your next point…

        ‘I do agree with what you say here and, undoubtedly, am not familiar enough with K.’s writings to nearly the same degree as you so feel I have to defer. My point I made earlier was that I had always received the impression that, in respect to K., Wittgenstein was more fascinated by him as a man and the picture of the man he gained from reading the works, rather than the works themselves and their message. Similar to Tolstoy. He loved what he read but not for the reasons the author would have necessarily imagined or agreed with. He seemed to do this a lot. His thoughts on Weininger’s ‘Sex and Character’ also spring to mind.’

        …I place much more weight on K’s influence – as I said, in spirit moreso than in strict letter – on W and his religious philosophy. That seems to be the main difference in our understandings of W, IMO (points of agreement and your points taken aside).

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        • Witty Ludwig July 14, 2014 / 5:18 pm

          Fair enough. I would certainly recommend gaining as holistic a view of Wittgenstein’s thoughts as possible; unfortunately, this is painstakingly time-consuming since, as you acknowledge above, pieces are scattered everywhere. Well worth the trouble, though.

          Which works of Kierkegaard would you particularly recommend? I’m very drawn to ‘Practice in Christianity’ for obvious reasons.

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          • whitefrozen July 14, 2014 / 5:32 pm

            For his religious thought (and in my opinion, to really see the real Kierkegaard), I highly, highly recommend ‘Works of Love’. Somewhat like Wittgenstein, his thought is scattered through all his writings – but after WoL, if you want his more serious philosophical work, go with Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

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            • Witty Ludwig July 15, 2014 / 3:45 am

              Many thanks for the suggestions. Knowing that W. never read ‘Works of Love’ I think I’ll go straight to PFaCUP. I’ll also read PiC out of general interest. It sounds, given Kierkegaard’s own opinion of that work, particularly interesting.

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  5. PeterJ July 14, 2014 / 6:27 am

    Very nice article Joshua. I feel that Wittgenstein muddles most issues and that this is one of them.

    “The classical Christian ethical tradition holds that ‘doing the good’ requires ‘knowing the good’ because our actions have as a ‘formal cause’ our desires and beliefs.”

    The whole of ethics in one sentence! Great stuff.

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    • whitefrozen July 14, 2014 / 11:18 am

      He does muddle issues – but there is a touch of greatness to how and why he muddles them. Keep in mind the context for his philosophy of religion is almost entirely a reaction to positivism and the verificationist challenge – his ideas, to me at least, have much less force in an environment where that isn’t a looming threat.

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      • PeterJ July 14, 2014 / 2:14 pm

        Lol. Yes, I suppose there is a touch of greatness about it. And it seems true that the debate was particularly muddled at the time. Now I come to think of it, I suppose it is natural that poor arguments will produce poor counter-arguments.

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