I have been discussing Wittgenstein’s way of looking at pictures, and especially at the various ways in which pictures are used in the context of religious language. I have also raised the question as to whether religious language can be described as ‘non-cognitive’. The traditional realist—metaphysical—account of non-cognitivism and religious language is to say that ordinary descriptive terms like ‘my brother’ and ‘America’ and ‘the Parthenon’ all refer to something, but words used in the religious contexts Wittgenstein discusses do not refer to anything. That is, the realist would say that when Wittgenstein is speaking of the Eye of God or the Last Judgement he isn’t actually referring to anything at all.
In the third of his lectures on religion, Wittgenstein interrupts his discussion of explicitly religious language and experience to consider what it is for a thought to be about ‘my brother in America’. At the same time, he speaks about referring per se, about words that can be thought of as ‘referring’ and ‘designating’. Now, although the discussion of reference may look like a digression, it is, I think, central to his account of religious language. During the discussion, he does not, however, take any examples from religion; the only example he uses is thinking about ‘my brother in America’. The issue which the discussion is intended to clarify—and to dissolve—is the notion that, as Hilary Putnam has it, ‘in ordinary language we have pictures (and, of course, words) and uses of pictures and words and something beyond the pictures and words, while in religious language we have only pictures and words and uses of pictures and words’. [Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 159.]
Wittgenstein is struck by the fact that he can think of his brother in America without there being any causal interaction between him and his brother taking place now. He can’t see or speak to his brother directly, for example. So how can he think about him if he isn’t there, before him? In fact, we don’t usually think about reference as a causal relation at all (unless we are in the grip of some kind of causal theory of meaning). Our natural temptation, when philosophising about these matters, is to think that the intentionality of our words is something given in the experience of thought itself. (One can see here the intrusion of a picture derived from the so-called Augustinian picture, whereby the object designated by a word is the meaning of that word—words are names, designating objects.) Wittgenstein puts the issue this way: ‘If you are asked: "How do you know that it is a thought of such and such?" the thought that immediately comes to mind is one of a shadow, a picture. You don’t think of a causal relation. The kind of relation you think of is best expressed by "picture", "shadow," etc’ (LC, 66). Wittgenstein then goes on to talk, in ways familiar from the Philosophical Investigations, about how we simultaneously tend to think of thoughts as mental pictures and to ascribe to them powers that no actual picture could possibly have:'The word ‘picture’ is even quite all right—in many cases it is even in the most ordinary sense, a picture. You might translate my very words into a picture.But the point is this, suppose you drew this, how do I know it is my brother in America? Who says it is him—unless it is here ordinary similarity? What is the connection between these words, or anything substitutable for them, with my brother in America? The first idea [you have] is that you are looking at your own thought, and are absolutely sure that it is a thought that so and so. You are looking at some mental phenomenon, and you say to yourself ‘obviously this is a thought of my brother being in America’. It seems to be a super-picture. It seems, with thought, that there is no doubt whatever. With a picture, it still depends on the method of projection, whereas here it seems that you get rid of the projecting relation, and are absolutely certain that this is a thought of that. (LC, 67)
In Philosophical Investigations §680 Wittgenstein considers the case of cursing someone and meaning him. ‘When you tell me that you cursed and meant N. as you did so it is all one to me whether you looked at a picture of him, or imagined him, or uttered his name, or what. The conclusions from this fact have nothing to do with these things’ (PI §680). If meaning were some kind of process like picturing it would make sense to ask how one meant that person when one cursed him. And yet the question makes no sense: it makes no sense to ask how one meant the man whom one cursed, for meaning is not an activity or act, which one might engage in or perform in different ways, and at which one might be more or less successful. One might indeed say that cursing was effective only when one had a clear image of the man or spoke his name out loud. But still we would not say, ‘The point is how the man who is cursing means his victim’. In uttering a sentence like ‘I am thinking of my brother in America’ and meaning what one said, one means, usually at least, what the sentence one uttered means. One is speaking seriously, not joking or quoting. And yet that does not mean that one is engaging in multiple acts of meaning, nor yet in a continuous activity of meaning. Mental images or pictures are irrelevant to word meaning, and equally irrelevant to whether a speaker understands the words he uses or hears.
To give another example, deriving from Frege, if not Kant: the sentence ‘the cat is on the mat’ consists of exactly the same words as the mere list, ‘the’, ‘cat’, ‘is’, ‘on’, ‘the’, ‘mat’. Yet the sentence has a truth value, in an appropriate situation, while the list has no truth value. What constitutes the difference between the sentence and the list? As Wittgenstein drew to our attention time and time again, what makes it the case that a sentence can have reference and truth value, while a mere list of words has neither reference nor truth value, is that we use sentences in very different ways from how we use mere lists. Referring enters into our lives in any one of a variety of ways. Thus I may repeat the word ‘cat’ over and over, but in doing so I will not be referring to cats, whereas if I use the word in certain ways, and in certain contexts, this will be referring to cats.
In his account of referring in the third lecture, Wittgenstein speaks of the referring use of language as a ‘technique of usage’. He suggests that the illusion of intrinsic intentionality, that is, the illusion that reference is some kind of mysterious inner event or thing that exists while we think and about which nothing can be said, is due to the fact that we pay attention only to our subjective experience and not to the technique of using the word. Suppose that we say that the thought we have is some kind of process in the mind, and the thought is ‘my brother is in America’, how are we to say what the connection is between this thought and the brother in America?
Is thinking of something like painting or shooting at something?
It seems like a projection connection, which seems to make it indubitable, although there is not a projection relation at all.
If I said ‘My brother is in America’—I could imagine there being rays projecting from my words to my brother in America. But what if my brother isn’t in America?—then the rays don’t hit anything. (LC, 67)
Wittgenstein reduces the notion of there being rays, that is, some kind of mysterious connection, between the thought and what is thought about, to absurdity here. The strong hold of the idea of there being some sort of mysterious connection between our words and what they refer to is due to the idea that one can say: ‘Well, I know what I mean’. It is as though I could look at something happening while I am saying what I have it in mind to say, something which is entirely independent of what comes before or after what is actually said. ‘It looked as though you could talk of understanding a word, without any reference to the technique of usage [or, perhaps better, use]. It looked as though Smythies said he could understand the sentence, and that we then had nothing to say’ (LC, 68). One has to see that Wittgenstein is speaking here out of a highly complex and dynamic conception of grammar, of the kinds of lives we lead with language. It is a conception according to which it makes no sense for us to try to ‘explain’ language in terms of rules, of grammar. Speaking in a lecture given in Cambridge in the Lent Term of 1931, he refers to the logical rule of inference, dealing with how one proposition follows from another, and says of it: 'It is a rule of grammar dealing with symbols alone, it is a rule of a game. Its importance lies in its application; we use it in our language. When we talk about propositions following from one another we are talking of a game. Propositions do not follow from one another as such; they simply are what they are. We can only prepare language for its usage [use]; we can only describe it as long as we do not regard it as language. The rules prepare for the game which may afterwards be used as language. Only when the rules are fixed can I use the game as a language'. [Wittgenstein’s Lectures, 1930-1932, ed. Desmond Lee (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), p. 57.]
As two recent commentators, James Guetti and Rupert Read, have pointed out, ‘What is remarkable here is the insistence that "language" is not even language until it is used, that whatever our "preparations" are—whatever purely grammatical considerations may be anterior to the employment of [the] same—we do not so much as regard these as language until they are used. And, most important, we cannot take language as language—that is, use it—and continue to describe it: which . . . means that while we are explaining, justifying, drawing-out, or otherwise considering grammatical relations, these are just not active linguistic rules’.[James Guetti and Rupert Read, "Acting from Rules", International Studies in Philosophy 28:2 (1996), 53-54.] The same may be said of the grammar of referring. It makes no sense to look for necessary and sufficient conditions that will determine in advance whether or not a particular use of words is or is not a ‘referring’ use. There are many varying ways of using words to refer, and it makes no sense to try to find some position from which they can all be surveyed or laid down in advance.
It is in Philosophical Investigations that Wittgenstein decisively undermines the presupposition that one can only use a word if one possesses a necessary and sufficient condition for its application. He takes the word ‘game’ as an example. In the case of this word, we don’t have necessary and sufficient conditions laid down for its use. To quote Putnam, ‘[w]e have some paradigms—paradigms of different kinds—and we extend the word ‘game’ to new contexts because they strike us as having similarities to cases where we have used the word before’. Putnam, op. cit., p.167.] To do this is, Wittgenstein says, a ‘natural reaction’. In a famous simile, he speaks of the kind of resemblance there is between different games as being like the resemblance there is between the different members of a family. He also uses the image of a rope. The rope is made up of fibres, but there is no one fibre running the entire length of the rope. There are only overlapping fibres. Analogously, one can say there are similarities between games, but there is no one feature common to all games. This conception of games is a good example of how a new, and striking, picture can open our eyes to new aspects of language, of language that already lies open to view. What this amounts to is summarised by Cavell: ‘it makes no sense at all to give a general explanation for the generality of language, because it makes no sense at all to suppose words in general might not recur, that we might possess a name for a thing (say "chair" or "feeding") and yet be willing to call nothing (else) "the same thing"’. [The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 188.]
In other words, Wittgenstein was not just making an empirical point about games, that in addition to words like red, which apply to all things which are similar in a particular respect, there are words like game which are not all similar in some one respect. As his further development of the analogy between games and language—in the conception of the ‘language-game’—makes clear, his primary interest was not in words like game, but in words like language and proposition and reference. The language-game of referring does not have an ‘essence’; there isn’t some one thing that can be called referring. Like the fibres of a rope, there are overlapping similarities between one sort of referring and another, and that is all. Because of this, Wittgenstein is not puzzled, as many philosophers have been, about how we can refer to abstract entities. Thus, there might seem to be a puzzle about how we can refer to a number, for example. Do we even know that there is such an object at all? For Wittgenstein, the use of number words is simply a use that is different from the use of words like ‘cow’ or ‘cat’. As we see from the opening section (§1) of Philosophical Investigations, we should stop thinking about ‘five’ as an ‘object’ or ‘abstract entity’, and attend to how the number word ‘five’ is used.
The pertinence of all this to a consideration of religious language can now, perhaps, be seen. Just as questions as to whether religious language is commensurable or compatible with other kinds of language, or whether it is cognitive or non-cognitive, have no purchase on the issues at stake, so with the question as to whether religious language refers or not. The way religious language works is both like and unlike ordinary cases of reference. There is no essence of reference. To refer to one’s brother in America is one kind of reference; to speak of God, ‘in Whom we live and move and have our being’, is not like this at all. On this showing, and assuming that there is something in it, it would seem true to say that, at the very least, Wittgenstein is engaged in showing us what religious language is not—in showing us how not to approach it.
I would like to develop this last point a little further. I shall do by drawing on the work of one of Wittgenstein’s most able commentators and translators, Peter Winch. In an essay entitled ‘Meaning and Religious Language’, Winch considers the position, advocated by certain philosophers of religion, that praying to God makes sense only if it is presupposed that God exists. There is the ordinary practice of talking to people and making requests of them, and the rationality of this practice is clearly not in question. Our ordinary practice can, of course, be criticised on particular occasions, as when the person addressed does not exist, or is no position to hear the request, or can do nothing about fulfilling it. For a philosopher who takes the view that one must presuppose the existence of God before the notion of prayer can be made intelligible, praying is to be treated as a special case of our general practice of making requests, and so on, and therefore to understand it is to understand it in a way that is similar to the way we understand those ordinary practices. The method of establishing God’s existence or non-existence may be a peculiar one, but that can taken as a separate issue.
Winch wishes to contest this position. He wants to say that there is a difference in grammar between ‘asking something of God’ and ‘asking something of another human being’. Here, in this account of ‘requesting’ and asking’, Winch is following the method of Wittgenstein, who drew attention to distinctions of a similar kind in relation to ‘referring’. Winch says: 'I mean that there is a difference not merely in the method it is appropriate to use in the two cases or in the nature of the requests it is appropriate to make, though both these things are true. I mean that what constitutes asking (and also answering) is different; or that the point of prayer (presupposed in any discussion of the rationality of particular cases of prayer) can only be elucidated by considering it in its religious context; that it cannot be elucidated by starting simply with the function ‘making requests to ‘x’, substituting ‘God’ for ‘x’, and then asking what difference is made by the fact that God has different characteristics from other xs. ‘Making requests of x’, that is, is not a function which retains the same sense whether ‘God’ or some name or description of a human being is substituted for ‘x’'. [Peter Winch, Trying to Make Sense (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 119.
Winch’s point is that it is certainly wrong to say that the existence of the addressee is presupposed in the one case and not in the other. But this does not mean that the existence of the addressee is presupposed in both cases. One should rather say that the question of ‘existence’ does not arise in the one case in the way it can arise in the other, anymore than the question of the existence of metres can arise in the case of someone wondering how tall a certain person is. The question simply makes no sense here. What the questioning of God’s existence amounts to is something quite different from what is involved in questioning the existence of a man. My ceasing to ask anything of someone I believe to exist no longer is a consequence of my ceasing to believe in that person’s existence. Ceasing to see any point in continuing to pray to God is an aspect of ceasing to believe in God. As Winch puts it, ‘there are internal connections between ceasing to believe in God’s existence and ceasing to see any point in prayer’ of a sort which do not hold between ceasing to believe in a human being’s existence and ceasing to make requests of him. (An internal relation [or connection] between two things can be defined as a relation that could not fail to hold, since it is given with or is (partly) constitutive of the terms (objects or relata) which make it up, as in the case of white’s being lighter than black. One might also put it this way: an internal property is a property a thing could not fail to have, because it is essential to its being the thing it is.) [Hans Glock, A Wittgenstein Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 189. One might consider Socrates to be wise or not. But one could not even conceive of him without thinking of him as a human being.] This is not to say that seeing a point in praying is identical with belief in God. But, as Winch points out, ceasing to see any point in prayer is one form which ceasing to believe in God may take. It is one aspect of that loss of belief. Thus certain attitudes towards prayer need not be seen as an external consequence, or result, or effect, of the belief or lack of belief in God.
As did Wittgenstein, Winch considers Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam. When Michelangelo represented the creation did he presuppose that something like this event had actually taken place? When we respond to the painting in a way which respects the religious ideas which it expresses, what kinds of consideration are relevant for us? 'Well, one might speak here of how the power of God the Father and Adam’s dependence are, on both sides, inseparably linked with love. God’s power is not simply combined with his love; it is his love. And likewise with Adam’s dependence on and love for his Creator: they are one.' [Winch, op. cit., p. 121.]
For Winch, the point of the representation has to be seen in the way in which worship and love are combined—internally connected, one might say—in the life of a believer. It is here that the picture is related to reality—not by reference to an external event, depicted in the painting. Winch insists that the kind of connection the painting has with reality is wholly different from what we might see in, say, a diagram of an accident presented with an insurance claim. The crucial difference shows in the kind of question it is right to ask in the one case as contrasted with the other.
The point is not that there cannot or should not be any relation or confrontation between a person’s religious convictions and the understanding of the world he has in other circumstances. But this does not mean that the confrontation with reality that a religious man undertakes is to be expressed in terms of ‘evidence for God’s existence or non-existence’. Reality makes itself felt in how we use language—both in our ordinary dealings with the world and in the case of religious language—in terms of the factual circumstances in which language is applied. This is to repeat the point made earlier, that language is not even language until it is used in a context, that whatever our preparations are—whatever purely grammatical considerations may be anterior to the employment of language—none of these rules or grammatical considerations are part of language until they are used in language. This is to say that the reality which the word ‘God’ expresses is to be found in the conditions of its application. Winch quotes Simone Weil: ‘The Gospel contains a conception of human life, not a theology’. And: ‘Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things’. She continues: ‘Only spiritual things are of value, but only physical things have a verifiable existence. Therefore, the value of the former can only be verified as an illumination projected on to the latter’. [Quoted in Winch, op. cit., p. 122. For a rather different view of these matters, see Brian R. Clack, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), pp. 73-4.]
To return to a point made earlier: the force of this latter comment appears only if we see how the grammar of our language—the role of a concept, say, in our use of language—is inseparable from the actual use of that language. Thus the grammar of the function ‘x loves his children’ is altered when ‘my brother’ or ‘God’ respectively is substituted for ‘x’. What would count as an explanation of the sense of the one—‘my brother loves his children’—is of a different kind from what would count as an explanation of the sense of the other—‘God loves his children.’ As Winch indicates, what would be relevant to the genesis of a doubt about the one is very different from what would support a doubt about the other. This is the case even though the two uses of the word ‘love’ are connected: one would hardly be able to speak about God’s love for his children if one could not speak about the love of human fathers for their children. Conversely, our notion of what human love is will alter if the notion of God as a loving father comes to occupy a central place in our thought. Thus, in the painting by Michelangelo of Adam’s creation, it is perfectly intelligible for us to say that what we see in the painting is that God’s power and love are combined into a single whole. God’s power here is his love. And similarly for Adam—his dependence on his Creator is his love for him. To see this is to see the painting’s ‘relation to reality’, and perhaps in so doing we can experience, or undergo, an alteration in our vision such that we can get free of the need, or compulsion, or urge, to see the painting as being a depiction of some other ‘realm of reality’ distinct from that to which empirical structures belong. And analogously to that change in vision, we can perhaps come to see that religious uses of language are not descriptions of an ‘order of reality’ distinct from the earthly life with which we are familiar.
If we want to understand the way a system of ideas is related to reality, we had best proceed by examining the actual application in life—in contexts of significant use—of these ideas, rather than, as it were, fastening our attention on the peculiar nature of the ‘entities referred to’ by them. Such an approach may appear more persuasive if we can come to recognise how it coheres with certain of Wittgenstein’s remarks concerning what it might be to see language as emerging from instinctive behaviour. In Zettel §545, he writes: ‘Being sure that someone is in pain, doubting whether he is, and so on, are so many natural, instinctive kinds of behaviour towards other human beings . . . Our language-game is an extension of primitive behaviour. (For our language-game is behaviour.) (Instinct.)’ [ Zettel, ed. G.E.M. Anscome and G.H. Von Wright, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), §545.
This suggests that our primitive behaviour is, from the start, a language-game. We are, so to speak, born into language, into the language-game. It is not incumbent on us to see the language-game as being the result of reflection, or ratiocination. A similar attitude is evident in On Certainty: 'You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there – like our life'. (OC §559)
In this context, it would make no sense to ask, ‘From what did it emerge?’ and even less sense to ask, ‘From what did language emerge?’ The question of the origin of language is not, at least in this context, intelligible. Language is not the outcome of reasoning, or of the transcendental capacity of reason. But nor does Wittgenstein say that it was the outcome of instinct, or that it emerged from instinct. Nor does he speak of any development from something prior to a language-game (Sprachspiel). The primitive reactions—that is, the natural, instinctive behaviour towards other human beings—have their importance within the language-game, the Sprachspiel. They show up, as it were, in the character they have by being certain moves within it. He says: ‘The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction, only from this can more complicated forms develop./Language—I want to say—is a refinement. "In the beginning was the deed."’ [Philosophical Occasions, ed. James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1993), p. 395. ‘In the beginning was the deed’ is from Goethe’s Faust I, opening scene in the Studierzimmer.]
The language-game is in its beginning already the language-game, the deed. There is nothing prior to it. Language can be seen as a refinement on primitive reactions, which are already language-games. Remarks of this kind, it should be emphasised, are not factual claims or statements about language, nor do they try to lay out a theory about the origin of language itself—they are reminders only, ways of looking—no more than that.
This conception, or vision, of language as being from the beginning a ‘deed’, is, I think, crucial. In any event, it is against the background of these remarks on the matter, remarks that are (I should perhaps emphasise again) purely transitional and therapeutic, that I would like to return to Wittgenstein’s account of what it is to follow a rule, in order to bring out further—and, I hope, pertinent—aspects of it. As a first point, it is important to note that, though one may list the rules of a game, one cannot explain what playing a game is by any such listing. Playing a game is ‘a part of our natural history’ (PI §25), and until one is an initiate of this human form of activity, even the preliminary procedure—the human gesture, the human deed—of ‘citing a rule’ can mean nothing. Just as there is no one set of characteristics which everything that we call ‘games’ shares, so there is no one characteristic shared by all the activities we call ‘being determined by rules’. [I am drawing here on Stanley Cavell’s discussion of rules and rule-following in ‘The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy’ in his book, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Language has no essence (PI §66). Following a rule is a practice (PI §202), as is playing a game. And what are the rules for following a rule? There are none, and yet, as Cavell puts it, it can be done correctly or incorrectly—which just means that it can be done or not done. And whether it is done or whether it is not done cannot therefore (logically) be a matter of rules. It is a matter of what Wittgenstein has called ‘forms of life’. This is what Wittgenstein is appealing to when he writes: ‘If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is imply what I do’. (PI §217). ‘What has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life.’ (PI p. 226)
It thus makes no sense to say either that there is, or that there is not, a ground of mutual intelligibility between human beings. In a passage from a later work, taking up precisely this question of what the ground or foundation of human reason might be, Cavell offers the following remarks: ‘Am I saying that human reason has, or that it has not, a foundation? . . . Am I saying that explanations come to end somewhere, each in its time and place, to be discovered philosophically, let us say, time after time, place by place? . . . I can put my question this way: Is the issue one of a leap [not of faith but, let us say, of reason] from a ground that is itself implied or defined by the leap? Or is the leap from grounds as such, to escape the wish for such definition [as if reason itself were a kind of faith]?’ [Stanley Cavell, "The Division of Talent", Critical Inquiry 11:4 (1985), 530-531.]
Cavell’s idea is, it would seem, that the ground from which one leaps or steps (in speaking, or, more narrowly, in the practice, the action, of following a rule) is itself implied or defined, retrospectively, as it were, by that very leap. It is not that in order to speak intelligibly we must locate ourselves upon some given ground of the possibilities of sense, on some already given ground made up of logical or grammatical rules. The idea is that to speak intelligibly is to define the ground from which we are speaking; it is that in speaking we are, in that very act, articulating the position that we are assuming and from which we speak. This is very close to what Lacan has called the act: the act is a move that defines its own conditions; it retroactively produces the grounds that justify it. As John Forrester puts it: ‘the true reason for deciding only becomes apparent once the decision has been taken’ (The Seductions of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 198, cited by Slavoj Žižek, For they know what they do (London: Verso, 1994), p. 191). There is no mediating structure—of forms, system, structure, rules—that justifies my position in speaking, nor need I seek, philosophically, that is, for any such mediating structure to act as the ground of my intelligibility. Thus, for each one of us, it must be that, if I am to speak intelligibly, I must articulate my point or position; I must draw a connection between what I say and what is before me—whether this be what I have to say about God, or about any other phenomenon, person, or experience, that concerns me, or even about previous remarks of my own or of someone else. In speaking, I project behind me and before me the ground of my intelligibility. There are no grounds other than this for our mutual intelligibility and acknowledgement, one of another.
To conclude, I would like to consider some remarks of Wittgenstein’s on ritual. Wittgenstein had a special interest in J.G. Frazer’s massive and magisterial The Golden Bough, completed in 1915. He wrote notes on it, and these were edited and first published in 1967 by Rush Rhees. The remarks in Part II probably come from sometime after 1948, towards the end of Wittgenstein’s life, and in them he considers, amongst other things, the Beltane or May-Day fire-festivals celebrated by Scottish children in the eighteenth century. Frazer tells us that the traces of human sacrifice were particularly clear and unequivocal in them. These traces are to be seen from the way the festival would develop towards its close, when the master of the feast would produce a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped around the edge. It was divided and distributed to those present. There was one special piece of cake, and whoever received it was called the Beltane carline, a term of great reproach (‘carline’ means ‘witch’ in Old Norse and in Middle English). Part of the company would try to put this person into the fire, but others interposed to save him. In some villages, he was laid flat, and the company made as if to quarter him. Wittgenstein wonders whether what we find sinister in the festival is something to do with the festival itself, or whether we shall find it sinister only if the conjecture that it originated in human sacrifice has been well established: ‘I believe it is clearly the inner nature of the modern practice itself which seems sinister to us, and the familiar facts of human sacrifice only indicate the lines along which we should view the practice. When I speak of the inner nature of the practice, I mean all the circumstances under which it is carried out and which are not included in a report of such a festival, since they consist not so much in specific actions which characterise the festival as in what one might call the spirit of the festival; such things as would be included in one’s description, for example, of the kind of people who take part in it, their behaviour at other times, that is, their character; the kinds of games they otherwise play. And one would then see that the sinister quality lies in the character of these people themselves’ [Philosophical Occasions, p.145]
A few pages later, he writes: ‘The fact that lots are drawn by the use of a cake is particularly horrible (almost like betrayal with a kiss), and that it strikes us this way is again of fundamental importance for the investigation of such practices. ‘When I see such a practice, or hear of it, it is like seeing a man speaking harshly to someone else over a trivial matter, and noticing from his tone of voice and facial expression that this man can on occasion be terrible. The impression that I receive here can be very deep and extraordinarily serious’ [op.cit., p.147]. He sums up his response here in the following way: ‘. . . what I see in these stories is . . . acquired through the evidence, including such evidence as does not appear to be directly connected with them,—through the thoughts of man and his past, through all the strange things I see, and have seen and heard about, in myself and others’ [op.cit., p.151].
Wittgenstein is responding to the murky world of the sinister and obscene rituals of eighteenth century Scotland, a country which had been ravaged by civil war and foreign invasion, resulting in forced expulsions of the rural population, land clearances and land grabbing. The rituals described by Frazer in this section of his book are to be seen as the shadowy doubles of the legal power relations recently imposed upon the conquered nation by the victorious power, Hanoverian England. The rituals are, in effect, so many forms of enjoyment (jouissance). While the rituals apparently transgressed and subverted the power of the English legal disposition, they were actually serving as the fantasmatic background to that power, as its ultimate support. There is thus something paradoxical and uncanny about the activities Frazer describes, which Wittgenstein picks up in the word ‘sinister’, a word, like ‘carline’, that suggests that what he saw attaching to the practices was evil.
Wittgenstein’s responsivenss to what is at stake here is evident from an extraordinary conversation Tania Pascal recalls having with him. She remembers how he picked up a volume of Grimm’s tales and read out ‘with awe in his voice’
Ach, wie gut ist, daß niemand weiß,
daß ich Rumpelstilzchen heiß!
'"Profound, profound"’, he said.’ She adds that, though she liked the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and understood that the dwarf’s strength lay in his name being unknown to humans, she could not share Wittgenstein’s vision. ‘To watch him in a state of hushed, silent awe, as though looking far beyond what oneself could see, was an experience next only to hearing him talk.’ [Cited by Cora Diamond, The New Wittgenstein, ed. Alice Crary and Rupert Read (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 171.] The question is like that posed by Lohengrin: why can the dwarf exert his power only so long as his name is unknown? Rumpelstiltskin is destroyed—split in two—the moment his identity is publicly revealed. The reason is that the dwarf functions as a spectral apparition that cannot sustain its disclosure in the public domain of speech. No sooner is he named than he is divided in language, split between his symbolic identity and what is in him more than himself. Rumpelstiltskin’s evil is unapproachable and terrible, as Cora Diamond has made clear, and as such irreducible to psychological or moral judgement. Wilhelm Grimm himself spoke of the evil in his tales as something terrible, black and wholly alien that one cannot even approach [OP.CIT., P.166]. When, in the notes on Frazer, Wittgenstein refers to the sinister and dark it is something of this order that he has in mind. Stanley Cavell has said of what Wittgenstein calls forms of life that ‘Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this’.
It may need to be emphasised in closing that there are no grounds for imputing relativism (or scepticism) to Wittgenstein. As Cavell has made clear again and again, and Putnam in the article on which I have drawn earlier in this paper, relativism shares with scepticism the demand for some overarching metaphysical justification for our lives with language. In Putnam’s words, ‘[s]omething in us both craves more than we can possibly have and flees from even the certainty that we do have’ [Putnam, op.cit., p.178]. We find ourselves in the grip of a fantasy which we cannot traverse. To invoke the notion of fantasy is, of course, to invoke psychoanalysis, and it is precisely in this context (of Lacanian analysis) that Slavoj Žižek has addressed the distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ certainty as Wittgenstein sets it out in On Certainty. ‘Subjective’ certainty has to do with certainty subjected to doubt, and it concerns those situations where the usual criteria of ignorance and knowledge apply. However, ‘[t]he attitudes and beliefs that constitute "objective certainty" are not submitted to test and doubt. . . . It is superfluous and wrong [nonsensical?] even to say that "objective certainty" concerns things about which "we undoubtedly know they are true"’ [Slavoj Zizek, For they know what they do (London: Verso, 1994), p. 150.] From a Lacanian point of view, what Wittgenstein calls ‘objective certainty’ corresponds to what Lacan calls ‘the big Other’, the field of the symbolic which we have always already accepted, the field which is internal, as it were, to our language-games. For someone not to believe in the big Other, and to be excluded from it, is, as Lacan argued throughout his career, to be in the condition of the psychotic. Now, while Wittgenstein clearly understands this condition of psychotic disbelief in the place language can have in our lives, as his examples show, his crucial concern is with what appears as an irreducible gap separating ‘objective certainty’ from ‘truth’. While he insists that although a language game is only possible if one trusts something, he also wants to say that ‘it is not that on some points men know the truth with perfect certainty. But perfect certainty is only a matter of their attitude’ [On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), §404].
As Norman Malcolm has put it, regarding this remark: ‘Being perfectly certain (i.e. objectively certain) of something — in the sense of regarding it as unintelligible that one might be wrong — is an attitude, a stance, that we take towards various matters; but this attitude does not necessarily carry truth in its wake’ [Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein: Nothing is Hidden (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 216.
Our forms of life float, as it were, in empty space, or, as Lacan would have it, there is an irreducible distance between the Symbolic and the Real. In Zizek’s words, ‘we cannot pinpoint any positive, determinate fact that would call “objective certainty" into question since all such facts always-already appear against the unquestioned background of "objective certainty"’. In other words, the irreducible distance that Wittgenstein brings out here is a gap made evident ‘by means of a radical discontinuity between certitude and "truth"; of positing a certainty which, although unquestionable, does not guarantee its "truth"’ [Zizek, op. cit., p. 152.] It is in this way that one can make out how radically misconceived—how fantasmatic—are charges of relativism (or scepticism) when levelled against Wittgenstein.
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