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.




History and Truth

Continuing still with the ‘eyes of faith’ theme, but going in a slightly different direction.

Kierkegaard makes some interesting points about the nature of truth in ‘Philosophical Fragments’. In a nutshell he says that in Jesus Christ, absolute truth descended into history and was made contingent – the transcendent absolute became historical fact. T.F. Torrance draws this out a bit more, but Kierkegaard’s basic point is that truth moved – therefore, movement is a property of truth – kinetic truth, as Torrance calls it. So we can’t think of truth as a sort of detached, frozen in time, out there kind of thing. We have to think in kinetic terms – I posted on this subject some time ago in relation to theological method. We have to know truth in a relation and dynamic, not detatched and frozen, kind of way.


‘Teaching about Christ begins in silence. ‘Be still, for that is the absolute,’ writes Kierkegaard. That has nothing to do with the silence of the mystics, who in their dumbness chatter away secretly in their souls by themselves. The silence of the Church is silence before the Word. In so far as the church proclaims the Word, it falls down silently in truth before the inexpressible: ‘In silence I worship the inexpressible,’ (Cyril of Alexandria). The spoken Word is the inexpressible; this unutterable is the Word. ‘It must become spoken, it is a great battle cry,’ (Luther). Although it is cried out by the Church in the world, it remains the inexpressible. To speak of Christ means to keep silent; to keep silent about Christ means to speak. When the Church speaks rightly out of a proper silence, then Christ is proclaimed.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center,’ p. 27)