Friday, 26 September 2008


‘I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ This remark of Wittgenstein’s indicates a doubleness or ambivalence in his relation to religion: he was drawn towards it and at the same time he was unable, or unwilling, to participate in it. There is a delicacy and hesitation here that is also manifest in his three Lectures on Religious Belief, lectures on which I shall base my account of his thought here. [Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). Hereinafter referred to in the text as LC.] The published version of the lectures was not written by Wittgenstein himself. It is edited from notes taken down by his students, which he neither saw nor checked. As the editor, Cyril Barrett, points out, it is even doubtful if he would have approved of their publication, at least in their present form. Nevertheless, it is here that some part of the value of the notes resides. The notes were made during lectures delivered in the summer of 1938 to Wittgenstein’s students in Cambridge, who sometimes make objections or suggestions as to what Wittgenstein should say. His refusal to accept what they propose and argue for tells us a good deal about how he went about philosophising, and also about the kinds of mistake even the best of his students were inclined to make.

The first of the three lectures sets a problem of interpretation before us. To begin with, Wittgenstein considers a number of religious utterances, not about God, but about the afterlife, or the Last Judgement, such as this: ‘An Austrian general said to someone; “I shall think of you after my death, if that should be possible.” We can imagine one group who would find this ludicrous, another who wouldn’t.’ (The lecture notes the fact that during the First World War, when he was a soldier, Wittgenstein saw consecrated bread being carried in chromium steel. This struck him as ludicrous.) Again, Wittgenstein imagines someone asking him if he believes in a Last Judgement: 'Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I didn’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.”' In the same kind of vein, he goes on: '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 some said: “Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?” I’d say: “No.” “Do you contradict the man?” I’d say: “No.” . . .
Would you say: “I believe the opposite”, or “There is no reason to believe such a thing”? I’d say neither. (LC 53)

It seems clear from this that, for Wittgenstein, the religious man and the atheist talk past one another.

What we shall see, I think, is that, so far as Wittgenstein is concerned in these lectures, when the religious person says ‘I believe in God’ and the atheist says ‘I don’t believe there is a God’, they do not affirm and deny the same thing. Religious discourse is commonly viewed, by atheists, and others, as a pre-scientific or primitive discourse which has somehow, through human folly and superstition, survived into the age of computers and advanced technology. Wittgenstein clearly believes no such thing. He is trying to get us to change our picture of what religious discourse is; he wants us to come to see it under a different aspect from that dictated to us by the presuppositions of a certain idea of what science is and what demands it makes on us. Wittgenstein’s picture is not that the religious person makes a claim, and the atheist asserts its negation. However, it is important to say that, in setting the issue out in this way, Wittgenstein is not trying to make a case for religion per se: the opposition between what the atheist might say, as opposed to the religious man, is meant to bring us to see, in the sense of seeing something in a new light, of grasping a new conception, how religious language has its place in our lives.

The opening lecture provides a number of pointers in this direction. Wittgenstein looks first, as an object of comparison, at how we might deal with an empirical question. Here, the appropriate response is often not to say ‘I believe’ or ‘I don’t believe’, but to say, ‘probably not’ or ‘probably yes’, or ‘Possibly. I’m not sure’. Wittgenstein uses the example of someone’s saying ‘There is a German plane overhead’ (the lectures were given in the summer of 1938). If Wittgenstein were to reply, ‘Possibly, I’m not so sure’, one would be inclined to say that he and his interlocutor were fairly near. With respect to the Last Judgement, however, things are different: 'Suppose someone were a believer, and said: ‘I believe in a Last Judgement’, and I said ‘Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.’ You would say there is an enormous gulf between us' (LC 53).

Wittgenstein brings out the significance of this difference by summarising the exchange in the following way: 'It isn’t a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you could express by saying: "You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein". The difference might not show up in any explanation of the meaning' (LC 53). To say that the difference between a religious and a non-religious use of language might not show up in any explanation of the meaning of what was said runs counter to many of our usual presuppositions in this area, and in this the remark seems to typify Wittgenstein’s approach here.

His next step is to characterise religious beliefs partly by what he calls their unshakeability. He refers again to the man who has a belief in the Last Judgement: 'Suppose someone made this guidance for his life: believing in the Last Judgement. Whenever he does anything, this is before his mind. In a way, how are we to know whether to say he believes this will happen or not?
Asking him is not enough. He will probably say he has proof.
But he has what you might call an unshakeable belief. It will show, not by reasoning, or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but by regulating for his whole life' (LC 53-4). What Wittgenstein means by ‘unshakeable belief’ in this context comes out in his following remarks: 'This is a very much stronger fact—foregoing pleasures, always appealing to this picture. This in one sense must be called the firmest of all beliefs, because the man risks things on account of it which he would not do on things which are far better established for him. Although he distinguishes between things well-established and not well-established' (LC 54). At this point, one of Wittgenstein’s students, Cassimir Lewy, intervenes: ‘Surely, he would say it is extremely well-established.’ Wittgenstein’s response is to say: ‘he may use “well-established” or not use it at all. He will treat this belief as extremely well-established, and in another way as not well-established at all’. Wittgenstein goes on to suggest that ‘There are instances where you have a faith—where you say “I believe”—and on the other hand this belief does not rest on the fact on which our ordinary everyday beliefs normally do rest’ (LC 54).

In order to get these remarks in perspective, one needs to acknowledge the extent to which Wittgenstein’s method in philosophy was to drive, not only others, but himself to self-examination and improvement—to drive others by driving himself. This is a matter of individual freedom and negotiation, whereby specific individuals negotiate and re-negotiate the meanings of their words. ‘Our method’ is grounded in a conception of meaning which emphasises individual freedom in the activity of concept-formation. We are thus free to adopt – or to discard – forms of representation. Wittgenstein rejected the notion that, as Waismann has it, ‘philosophy is an exercise of the intellect and that philosophical questions can be settled by argument, and conclusively if one only knew how to set about it’ [Friedrich Waismann, How I See Philosophy (London; Macmillan, 1968), pp. 21-2. Hereafter referred to in the text as HISP]. This refusal to settle things by argument can be seen in these remarks, where Wittgenstein seems concerned to put off any definition of what religious discourse is, or must be. And it seems clear that in order to bring this about he is involving himself in the issues at hand and drawing on his own religious position. In these lectures, Wittgenstein presents himself as a non-believer, and yet, from other posthumous writings, including the text published as Culture and Value, we know that he had a profound respect for religious belief, and that he thought a great deal about religious belief, especially Christianity (he had been brought up as a Roman Catholic). He also held Kierkegaard in high regard, especially the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

So it would seem clear, then, as Hilary Putnam has indicated, that when Wittgenstein speaks of the ‘unshakeability’ of religious belief, he is not saying that a genuine religious faith is always and at every moment free from doubt [Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p.145. I am deeply indebted to Putnam’s discussion throughout these lectures.] Kierkegaard spoke of faith as a state to be repeatedly re-entered, not as a state in which one can permanently stay. It would seem, however, that Kierkegaard – like Wittgenstein – would certainly assent to the view that religious belief ‘regulates for all’ of the believer’s life, even though his religious belief may alternate with doubt. In this respect, a religious belief can be said to differ from an empirical belief. If I confidently believe that some course of action is the right way to set about completing a project, say, fixing my car, I will begin on fixing my car in that way. If something leads me to have doubts, I will stop what I am doing, and investigate the problem before going on, or doing things in an entirely different manner. Such an approach makes no sense when posited of a religious belief.

Perhaps I can make this clearer by drawing on an example that Wittgenstein proposes: 'Suppose you had two people, and one of them, when he had to decide which course to take, thought of retribution, and the other did not. One person might, for instance, be inclined to take everything that happened to him as a reward or punishment, and another person doesn’t think of this at all.
If he is ill, he may think: "What have I done to deserve this?" This is one way of thinking about retribution. Another way is, he thinks in a general way whenever he is ashamed of himself: "This will be punished".
Take two people, one of whom talks of his behaviour and of what happens to him in terms of retribution, the other one does not. These people think entirely differently. Yet, so far, you can’t say they believe different things'.

Wittgenstein then goes on to make it clear why you can’t say of the two people that, though they think entirely differently, you can’t say they believe different things. 'Suppose someone is ill and he says: ‘This is a punishment’, and I say: ‘If I’m ill, I don’t think of punishment at all’. If you say: ‘Do you believe the opposite?’—you can call it believing the opposite, but it is entirely different from what we normally call believing the opposite.
I think differently. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures.' He then goes on to amplify the point: 'It is this way: if someone said: "Wittgenstein, you don’t take illness as a punishment, so what do you believe?"—I’d say: "I don’t have any thoughts of punishment".
There are, for instance, these two entirely different ways of thinking first of all—which needn’t be expressed by one person saying one thing, another person saying another' (LC 54-5).

What Wittgenstein means to bring out, I think, by the example of the man who thinks of his life in terms of retribution, and the one who doesn’t, is that our lives may be organised around very different pictures. What he is meaning to do is to get us to look at religion and the way we use religious language, at the role and place religion and the language of religion have in our lives, and see them as having more to do with the kind of picture that we organise our lives around, than it has to with expressions of belief. As Wittgenstein says, in relation to this example: ‘What we call believing in a Judgement Day or not believing in a Judgement Day—The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role’ (LC 55).

Friedrich Waismann, in his commentary on Wittgenstein’s philosophy, has written: ‘if I were asked to express in one single word what is [philosophy’s] most essential feature I would unhesitatingly say: vision. At the heart of any philosophy worth the name is vision, and it is from there it springs and takes its visible shape. When I say ‘vision’ I mean it: I do not want to romanticize. What is characteristic of philosophy is the piercing of that dead crust of tradition and convention, the breaking of those fetters which bind us to inherited preconceptions, so as to attain a new and broader way of looking at things’ (HISP 32). The aim of such a way of thinking is to give a new direction to thought itself, and to open windows on the not-yet-seen. What is decisive is a new way of seeing. It is just such a new way of seeing that Wittgenstein sought to achieve. When he began philosophy, it was held by many philosophers that the nature of such things as hoping, thinking, meaning, intending and understanding, could be discovered by introspection, while others thought that answers could be reached by experiment. Wittgenstein changed the whole approach, by suggesting, and backing up his suggestion with many and differing examples, that what these words mean shows itself in how they are used—the nature of understanding shows itself in grammar, not in experiment or metaphysical speculation. Waismann, who knew him well, reports that this was at the time quite a revelation and ‘came to him, as far as I can remember, suddenly’ (HISP 38-9).

The quoted passages give some sense of the spirit in which Wittgenstein went about bringing about such a renewal of vision—in these lectures, the renewal of his students’ vision. For example, he draws a contrast between the basis on which one forms empirical beliefs and the basis upon which one forms religious beliefs. ‘Reasons look entirely different from normal reasons’ in the case of religious belief. ‘They are, in a way, quite inconclusive’ (LC 56). He contrasts two cases: first, there is a person who can foresee the future and make forecasts for years ahead. This person believes on the basis of what we might call scientific evidence that something that fits the description of a Last Judgement will in fact happen. The other is someone who has a religious belief, and ‘A religious belief might in fact fly in the face of such a forecast, and say “No. There it will break down”’ (LC 56). Wittgenstein says that if a scientist told him that there was going to be a Last Judgement in a thousand years, and that he had to forego all pleasures because of such a forecast, that he, Wittgenstein, ‘wouldn’t budge’. But for the man whose belief in such a forecast was religious, and not scientific, things would be different: ‘[Such] a man would fight for his life not to be dragged into the fire. No induction. Terror. That is, as it were, part of the substance of the belief’ (LC 56).

So how does Wittgenstein try to get us to see religious language? He has set up, in this first lecture, a number of contrasts, including those between the atheist and the believer, between empirical or scientific statements and those of religion, and between what one might call justifiable belief and a different kind of belief, such as perhaps one finds in religion. One needs to note here that Wittgenstein is not offering any theory of religion or of religious language, nor does his method come to any definite conclusion, any decisive definition of the issues at stake. There are in the philosophy of religion a number of ways that one might discuss and categorise religious language. For example, one might say that religious language and empirical discourse are simply incommensurable, or incompatible, with one another. The non-religious person simply can’t understand the religious person. Or again, one might say that the religious and the non-religious person can understand each other, but that the non-religious person is using language literally, while the religious believer uses language in non-literal way, perhaps emotively, or to ‘express an attitude’ or feeling. One might equally well say, amplifying the last point, that ordinary discourse is ‘cognitive’, that is, concerned with statements of fact about the world, while the religious person is making use of some kind of ‘non-cognitive’ language. What Wittgenstein is after is to avoid saying any of these things, and to suggest why all these approaches, in their different ways, are misguided.

To see why he thinks so, I return to the example mentioned earlier, in which Wittgenstein imagines two people, the first of whom says ‘I believe in a Last Judgement’, while the second (whom Wittgenstein seems to think of as himself) says ‘Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly’. Here Wittgenstein says: ‘It isn’t a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you could express by saying: “You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein”’ (LC 53). As Putnam has pointed out, this looks like the view according to which religious and non-religious discourse are simply incommensurable with one another: they are just incompatible [Putnam, op.cit., p. 150]. Indeed, one might reinforce such an impression by citing the famous words from the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations (§43), where Wittgenstein wrote: ‘For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. If one ignores—as is usually done—the qualification ‘though not for all’, and ascribes to Wittgenstein the conception that meaning can always be defined as use, then it is only too natural to read this seeming ‘theory of meaning’ back into the passage from the Lectures on Religious Belief. Then one can argue that he is saying that the religious and the non-religious person are using words in a different way. On this view, the words ‘I believe in the Last Judgement’ (or the Incarnation of Christ, etc) have a different meaning for someone who can speak of the Last Judgement as a matter of ‘probability’ and for a religious believer. But Wittgenstein does not say this. According to the notes of the lecture, it is Wittgenstein’s imaginary interlocutor who says ‘You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein’. Wittgenstein himself responds to his imaginary interlocutor by saying: ‘The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of the meaning’. The interlocutor is, in effect, presupposing a view or theory of ‘meaning as use’ that is often ascribed by commentators to Wittgenstein himself. The real Wittgenstein, however, is reminding his interlocutor that in this instance we don’t have to think of the word ‘meaning’ in that way, and that the difference in these two uses is not something we have to see as a difference in meaning.

Towards the end of the first lecture, Wittgenstein points out that as an educated man who has read the religious classics (and, as we know, has thought deeply about them) there is a very good sense in which he knows what the religious person means, although there is another sense in which he is inclined to say ‘I [don’t] even know whether to say I understand him or not’ (LC 58). Wittgenstein continues: 'If Mr. Lewy [Cassimir Lewy, one of the students present at the lectures] is religious and says he believes in a Judgement Day, I won’t even know whether to say I understand him or not. I’ve read the same things as he’s read. In a most important sense, I know what he means' (LC 58). Wittgenstein is warning us against supposing that talk of ‘meaning the same’ and ‘not meaning the same’ will clarify anything here. So what then is he saying? Perhaps it is something like this: that religious discourse can be understood in any depth only by understanding the form of life to which it belongs. To say this is to echo Philosophical Investigations §19: ‘to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life’. What this amounts to is clarified in part by Wittgenstein’s use of the term ‘language-game’: ‘Here the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that speaking a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life’ (PI, §23). Wittgenstein gives this example, in Part Two of Philosophical Investigations, regarding the possibility of an animal being hopeful: 'One can imagine an animal angry, frightened, unhappy, happy, startled. But hopeful? And why not?
A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe his master will come the day after tomorrow?—And what can he not do here?—How do I do it?—How am I supposed to answer that?
Can only those hope who can talk?—How am I supposed to answer this?
Can only those hope who can talk? Only those who have mastered the use of a language. That is to say, the phenomena of hope are modes of this complicated form of life. (If a concept refers to a character of human handwriting, it has no application to beings that do not write.) (PI, p.174) A few pages later, he insists that ‘What has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life’ (PI, p. 226).

This point is emphasised by Stanley Cavell, in a gloss on the question of what Wittgenstein means to be saying here. Cavell writes: ‘What has to be accepted, Wittgenstein says, is forms of life’. It may worth noting before going on further that, while Cavell puts his emphasis on ‘accepted’, Wittgenstein’s italics fall on ‘form of life’. Cavell, I think, wants to bring home to us here that a form of life and its acceptance are inseparable, an emphasis that accords with the spirit of Philosophical Investigations §242, where the following remark occurs: ‘It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. This is not agreement in opinions but in forms of life’. Cavell writes: ‘What has to be accepted, Wittgenstein says, is forms of life. This is not the same as saying that our lives as we lead them—in particular, for Wittgenstein, our lives of theory—must be accepted. What it says, or suggests, is that criticism of our lives is not to be prosecuted in philosophical theory, but continued in the confrontation of our lives with their own necessities. He also says that language, and life, rests on conventions. What he means is, I suppose, that they have no necessity beyond what human beings do. He does not mean, for example, that we might convene and decide or vote on what our human forms of life shall be, choose what we find funny or whether we shall continue finding loss and comfort where we do. If we call these arrangements conventional, we must also call them natural. The thought was perhaps expressed by Pascal when he said of human beings, ‘Custom is our nature.’ It is from such an insight that Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard explicitly avoid explanations of our lives and concentrate on descriptions of them as they are, together with the alternatives which present themselves at given moments. Or perhaps we should say: for them a philosophical explanation takes the form of a description, unlike explanations in science’ [Stanley Cavell, Themes out of School (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 224.]

In the light of this understanding of the phrase ‘forms of life’, one can make some suggestions as to what Wittgenstein has in mind with respect to the form of life with which religious language is informed. On the basis of his remarks thus far in the Lectures on Religious Belief, what appears to characterise that form of life is not the expressions of belief that accompany it, but a way—a way that includes words and pictures—but is far from consisting only in words and pictures—of living one’s life, of regulating all one’s decisions. Cavell mentions Kierkegaard, and what Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein have in common is the idea that understanding the words of a religious person properly—whether you want to speak of understanding their ‘meaning’ or not—is inseparable from understanding a religious form of life. And this is not a matter developing a theory, but of understanding a human being, a human person.

To take this onward a little, one might note that Wittgenstein has said in the course of his lectures that the religious person ‘uses a picture’, and so it seems important that we get clear as to how we are to take this idea. It might, for instance, seem that in talking about the use of pictures in this context Wittgenstein is, at least implicitly, endorsing some kind of ‘non-cognitive’ view of religious language, that is, that the religious person uses language, not to say something that is true or false, but to express an attitude or feeling or emotional outlook. (For example, it has been held in the discussion of ethics initiated by ‘emotivists’ like C.L. Stevenson that the literal meaning of ‘it is good’ is identical with its emotive meaning, the positive attitude it expresses.) That this is a view that Wittgenstein strongly repudiates is, I hope, clear. For him, religion is not a feeling. Belief in God is not a feeling. There is little or no sense in asking, as one might ask about a feeling, whether someone’s belief in God has been going on all the time, or when it started or when it stopped. This, then, is why it is so pre-eminently worthwhile looking at what he has to say about pictures and the use we make of them. It is a discussion crucial to his understanding of religious language.

During the course of the second lecture, Wittgenstein talks about the painting by Michelangelo of God creating Adam:

Take ‘God created man’. Pictures of Michelangelo showing the creation of the world. In general, there is nothing which explains the meaning of words as well as a picture, and I take it that Michelangelo was as good as anyone can be and did his best, and here is the picture of the Deity creating Adam.
If we ever saw this, we certainly wouldn’t think this the Deity. The picture has to be used in an entirely different way if we are to call the man in that queer blanket ‘God’, and so on. (LC, 63)

The painting by Michelangelo of God creating Adam only has the meaning it has in the context of a certain kind of significant use, that is, as part of an activity, or form of life. And yet what is involved in understanding the painting is not necessarily an interpretation. The following remarks come from late in the third lecture: 'Suppose someone, before going to China, when he might never see me again, said to me: ‘We might see one another after death’—would I necessarily say that I don’t understand him? I might say [want to say] simply, ‘Yes. I understand him entirely’ (LC, 71).

At this juncture, Wittgenstein’s student, Lewy, interjects: ‘In this case, you might mean only that he expressed a certain attitude’. Wittgenstein’s reply is: 'I would say No, it isn’t the same as saying “I’m very fond of you”’—and it may not be the same as saying anything else. It says what it says. Why should you be able to substitute anything else?
Suppose I say: "The man used a picture."
"Perhaps now he sees he was wrong." What kind of remark is this?
"God’s eye sees everything"—I want to say of this that it uses a picture.
I don’t want to belittle him [the person who says it]' (LC, 71).

Another student, Yvor Smythies, intervenes here to oppose Wittgenstein, saying: ‘This isn’t all he does—associate a use with a picture.’ Wittgenstein’s reply is: ‘Rubbish’—not the most encouraging of responses. He goes on to repeat his point that the man could not just as well have said something else. At the same time, he admits that it is perfectly true that there are certain kinds of picture that can be replaced by another. For example we could under certain circumstances have one projection of an ellipse drawn rather than another. But, in this case, there is nothing else that can do quite what this picture can do: ‘The whole weight may be in the picture’ (LC, 71). H econtinues: 'When I say he’s using a picture I’m merely making a grammatical remark: [What I say] can be verified only by the consequences he does or does not draw.
If Smythies disagrees, I don’t take notice of this disagreement.
All I wished to characterize was the conventions [sic] he wished to draw. If I wished to say anything more I was merely being philosophically arrogant' (LC, 72).

To say the religious person is using pictures is simply to describe what we can see for ourselves. Religious people do employ pictures, and they draw certain consequences from them, but not the same consequences that religious and non-religious people alike draw when they are using similar pictures in other contexts. If one says of someone that he has an eye, then one is probably prepared to say that he has an eyebrow. 'But when I speak of the Eye of God, I am not prepared to speak of the eyebrow of God.'

But perhaps the most significant thing here is not so much what Wittgenstein says, as the limits that he places on his own observation, the limits to ‘philosophical arrogance.’ Pictures are important in life. The whole weight of a form of life may lie in the pictures that are inseparable from that form of life (a major theme of On Certainty). In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein comments ‘It is true that we can compare a picture that is firmly rooted in us to a superstition; but it is equally true that we always eventually have to reach some firm ground, either a picture or something else, so that a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition’ [Culture and Value, ed. G.H. Von Wright, with Heikki Nyman, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 83e.]. The very next remark is: ‘If Christianity is the truth then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.’ This goes wholly against the common misconception that Wittgenstein was against pictures as such. There are, of course, those pictures that have philosophers in their grip, bewitching them. However, he speaks in other contexts of pictures as being good ways of explaining the meanings of words (a point he makes during his discussion of Michelangelo, as well as elsewhere), and he also wishes to insist that they may also have ‘weight’—that they may be ‘at the root of all our thinking’. For Wittgenstein, such a conception of pictures can illuminate religious language (as well as language more generally) and bring us to see it in a new light. So it is in these terms that one might want to consider the question of ‘truth’: of the right or wrong way of thinking about, of worshipping, God. Perhaps one could compare this with the right way or the wrong way of playing a piece of music. Or again, thinking of death as something important, awesome, is not the same as being afraid for one’s life.

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