Saturday, 27 September 2008


[This and the following two pieces on Wittgenstein and the language of religion were given as lectures at the Volos Theological Academy in May 2007.]

I want to begin by drawing to mind the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, born in October 1891 and killed on the Western Front on 5 June 1915, at the age of twenty-three. Before joining the British Army, Gaudier had lived in London, where he had known Ezra Pound. He lived in conditions of extreme impoverishment, and for his sculpture used what oddments of stone came to hand, such as remnants left over from the monumental tomb carvings supplied by the undertakers of the time. One of his major sculptures, ‘The Cat’, came from just such a broken and left-over piece of marble. ‘He was definitely a visionary,’ Pound records, ‘and “saw” both in waking and in sleep’. (Pound places quotes around ‘saw’ to emphasise the word.) He writes of Gaudier in Canto 27:

as the sculptor sees the form in the air
before he sets hand to mallet,
and as he sees the in, and the through,
the four sides
not the one face to the painter

In ‘The Cat’, ‘lifeless air became sinewed’, as Pound has it in Canto 2: Gaudier could see the cat in the contours of a marble fragment, in the same way that he could at once see the horse in a Chinese ideogram he came across for the first time in a Chinese-English dictionary he opened when visiting Pound’s flat in London. [See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1975), p. 250.] I emphasise this matter because what Pound called Gaudier’s ‘vision’ is closely related to what Wittgenstein was to consider under the heading of ‘aspect seeing’, and his discussion of aspect seeing is crucial for a grasp of his way of doing philosophy, what he calls his ‘method’. Clarification concerning his way of going about philosophy is indispensable for getting to grips with how he saw the language of religion.

In the main, Wittgenstein discusses the seeing of aspects in relation to visual perception, and his interest here, for example in the second part of Philosophical Investigations, is to point out the differences between the concept of seeing and the concept of aspect-seeing, or seeing-as. His famous example of aspect-seeing is that of the duck-rabbit, a figure that seen under one aspect is seen as a rabbit, and seen under a second aspect is seen as a duck. There are, of course, many other examples: the Neckar cube, that flips flops back and forth, so that no sooner has one side appeared as the leading or front edge of the cube than the rear edge comes to the fore, replacing the first one. Seeing of aspects is also evident in how we respond to the expressions on faces, so that one may be struck by a look on someone’s face: ‘I suddenly saw great deceit in the way he looked at me, he suddenly struck me in that way.’ One may suddenly be struck by the resemblance between two faces; ‘I had never noticed how alike those two are’. Aspect-seeing enters fundamentally into aesthetic judgement also. In any event, it is in relation to the distinction between seeing and seeing-as that I wish to clarify a second distinction, that between the concept of describing concepts and the concept of proposing conceptions (the distinction between Begriff and Auffassung). In drawing attention to this latter distinction I should make it clear that I am following Gordon Baker, whose article ‘The Grammar of Aspects and Aspects of Grammar’, has made, I believe, a fundamental contribution to our understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. [See Gordon Baker, Wittgenstein’s Method: Neglected Aspects (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), pp.279-293.]

Wittgenstein’s account of aspect-seeing starts from what seems to be a paradox: when an aspect dawns on me, nothing has changed in what I see, and yet everything looks different. In the shift from duck to rabbit, or vice-versa, the figure on the paper does not alter, and yet what I see has altered radically. ‘I contemplate a face and suddenly I notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently’ [Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 193. Hereafter cited in the text as PI]. ‘The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged’ (PI, p. 196). In one sense, what I see is unchanged (the diagram or drawing), while what I see (for example, a rabbit as opposed to a duck) is wholly different. One might be inclined to say that there is a sense in which the aspect is not there and a sense in which it is very much there. There is ‘a sense in which to speak of ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ with respect to it is to miss its point and yet another sense in which seeing it and giving it expression you are truer to the object than if you stick to objective terms – the terms, that is, of what Wittgenstein calls “the language-game of reporting”, or “the language-game of information”’ [Avner Baz, ‘What’s the Point of Seeing Aspects?’, Philosophical Investigations 23:2 (April 2000), 106].

It seems clear that one can recognise a closely analogous puzzle in respect of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the grammar of our language. I should perhaps make clear that by ‘grammar’ Wittgenstein does not mean the declension of verbs, nouns and so on, as in what we usually refer to when we speak of the grammar of English or Greek, say. For him, a grammatical investigation, which is what a philosophical investigation essentially involves, is a matter of presenting different ways of seeing the use of our words, that is, the roles our words have in our lives with language. His principal goal in his descriptions of the workings of our language was not to establish any facts of grammar, but to reveal or bring to the attention of willing readers neglected aspects or unnoticed patterns in what we say. His intention is to leave language just as it is. Philosophy, on his conception of it, has no authority to interfere with the actual use of language (PI §124). What he is really after, I want to say, is to reveal aspects of things that are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. ‘The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’ (PI §109). ‘It is of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand’ (PI §89). What we are concerned with – and by we here is meant Wittgenstein and those philosophers who also seek to practice his methods – is not the essence of language, an essence hidden from us, lying beneath the surface, but with ‘something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable by a rearrangement’ (PI §91). The approach Wittgenstein is trying to get us to turn us away from can be characterised in the following way:

‘The essence is hidden from us’: this is the form our problem assumes [when we look at it from this point of view]. We ask: ‘What is language?, What is a proposition? And the answer to these questions is to be given once for all; and independently of any future experience (PI §92).

What can be said of visual aspect-seeing can also be said of Wittgenstein’s approach to language: nothing is changed, yet everything appears differently.

As Baker makes clear, the best way of making good sense of these remarks about Wittgenstein’s method of philosophising is to recognise the pivotal importance to it of conceptions (Auffasungen), or ways of seeing things in the activity that he calls ‘describing grammar’. Wittgenstein suggests that philosophical problems are an impression of disorder in our concepts which is manifested in our not being able to find our way about: ‘A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about”’ (PI §123). Wittgenstein’s remedy is, according to Baker, to seek for what he calls the liberating word (das erlosende Wort) in the form of exhibiting an order which, as if by magic, transforms what seemed chaos into something that is intelligible. He tries to present language in such a way as to make his interlocutor see things in a new way, as though coming to see a particular ‘physiognomy’ in our use of words, rather as one might see a particular face, a particular physiognomy, in a new light, under a new aspect. Success here is not a matter of imparting new information or conveying an opinion, and it is certainly not the construction of a theory. What is now to be grasped is not a discovery, since it was always in plain view, though previously unnoticed. In accepting a new conception, everything stays the same, and yet everything undergoes a metamorphosis.

Here are some clarifications offered by Wittgenstein of the logic (or grammar) of purely visual aspect-seeing:

1) When we see something to be red or square, this excludes the possibility of our seeing it to be green or triangular. But when we see a picture as a duck, this does not exclude the possibility of our also seeing it as a rabbit (on another occasion). Aspects do not exclude one another. To acknowledge one way of seeing something does not make a different way of seeing it illegitimate. In this sense, then, aspects can be said to be complementary. They are, so to speak, essentially plural: to speak of one way of seeing something presupposes that there are other ways of seeing it.
2) It is impossible to see a picture simultaneously as a duck and as a rabbit. As Baker insists, following Wittgenstein, visual aspects are in essence non-additive. That is, there is no way of combining two ways of seeing something to produce a single more comprehensive way of seeing it. If one sees something as a duck, then this is going to interfere with one’s seeing it as a rabbit. To put this more generally, and with reference to the overall argument, an entrenched way of seeing something is going to make it very difficult, if not impossible, to see something in a new and unfamiliar way.
3) Aspects don’t teach us about the external world, if by ‘teaching about the external world’ we mean giving (objective) information about the external world (RPPI, 874). Wittgenstein says that an aspect is not ‘a property of the object’ (PI, p.212a). He also says that the criterion for what you see, when seeing in the sense in which aspects are seen, is your representation of what you see. If I say to you that I see a resemblance between two faces, I may be lying to you (for whatever reason) but I cannot be mistaken. That aspects don’t teach us anything about the external world hangs together with another feature, which is that aspect-seeing is, in contrast to seeing, in a certain sense voluntary. The aspect is subject to the will. This dependency on the will is not psychological, but grammatical. What makes aspects subject to the will is not that we can see this or that as we wish to (consider a puzzle-picture), but that it makes sense to say: ‘Now see the figure like this’. It makes sense for me to ask you to see the likeness between two faces. I can ask you to look for it, and give you hints as to how to go about it. The same holds for aesthetic judgements. As with aesthetic insight, an insight which requires the exercise of one’s imagination, no information is acquired in the dawning of an aspect. Nothing is discovered. Hence there is a sense in which aspects are not subject to dispute. They are not open to rational support or to discomfirmation by appeal to the facts. One might say that aspects are cognitively empty.
4) Much aspect-seeing presupposes the mastery of concepts. The dawning of an aspect is, one might say, half thought, half experience. We cannot see something as an X unless we have the concept of being an X. Wittgenstein’s example refers to a triangle, and is as follows: ‘In the triangle I can now see this as apex, that as base—now this as apex, that as base.—Clearly the words “Now I am seeing this as an apex cannot so far mean anything to a learner who has only just met the concepts base, apex, and so on.—But I do not mean this as an empirical proposition’ (PI, p.208e). It is only if someone can use, is master of, such and such a technique, here of language, that it makes sense to say that he has had this experience.
5) An aspect can only be displaced by another aspect. As Baker indicates, seeing-as belongs, as it were, to another dimension than seeing. It is the different aspects of the duck-rabbit that exclude each other. By contrast, no feature of the drawing (nothing to be seen in it) can logically exclude my seeing it as a duck, or a rabbit. Furthermore, nothing but seeing it as something different (a rabbit) can interrupt my seeing it as a duck.
6) There is the possibility of what can be called ‘aspect-blindness’. An aspect may be invisible to someone, even though what has this aspect is open to view. It may be seen by one person, but be invisible to another. One may think in this connection of someone who is colour blind, or tone-deaf, or who lacks a ‘musical ear’. There is also the case of what Wittgenstein calls ‘meaning-blindness’. To take an English example, what would you be missing if you did not understand the request to pronounce the word ‘till’ and to mean it as a verb—or if you did not feel that a word lost its meaning and became a mere sound if you repeated it ten times over? (PI, p.214d) Only someone who sees a particular aspect can ascertain that another is blind to this aspect of what is in plain view, and nobody can establish by himself that he is blind to an aspect (or aspect-blind). I cannot say of myself that I see the duck-rabbit as a duck unless I can also see it as a rabbit.
7) A crucial aspect of the discussion is this: I cannot demonstrate to someone that there is a possibility of seeing a particular aspect of something, of seeing this as that, without getting him actually to see this aspect.
8) There is a question that is likely to arise at this point: why not say that the aspect is purely subjective? Here one might follow Stanley Cavell, who addressed a similar question about ‘beauty’ (and one should note the pertinence of considerations of aesthetic judgement to the understanding of aspect-dawning). If we say that aspect-dawning is subjective, we need still to register our sense that aspects seem to force themselves on us (PI, p.204g), that the different aspects are out there to be seen, open to view, and that if someone cannot see it then there is something he is blind to. To say ‘now it’s a duck for me’ is not the same thing as saying ‘now it’s a duck’, and in many cases to say ‘Well, I can see the resemblance’ is not to repeat my original statement but to withdraw it, withdraw its claim. Aspects are not imaginary, or mere creatures of the mind; unlike perceptual experiences, they are, as I have mentioned, subject to the will. For this reason, aspect-dawning might be said to be half perception, half imagination. An aspect is, one might say, neither subjective nor objective: the language of subjectivity and objectivity is not quite adequate to the experience of aspect-dawning.
9) Solving a picture puzzle, or engaging in aesthetic appreciation or judgement, may depend on getting someone to see an aspect to which he is now blind. For example, coming to see the significance of Eliot’s use of the fragment and syntactic rupture in The Waste Land may require the reader to change his whole attitude to literature, and to read in a new way. But what would be involved here would be distinctive: it would involve a form of rational discussion without the possibility of proof. This may involve various methods, none of which can be laid down in advance, such as the use of comparison with other writers, of analogy with writers from earlier periods and from Eliot’s contemporaries and immediate predecessors (such as Mallarmé), of getting the reader to listen, to hear, the poem’s language in a particular way. The general heading for all of this might be: suggesting objects for comparison. None of them guarantees success. None carries ‘the force of argument’.

What has been said above about the concept of visual aspect-seeing would seem to hold also for a wider sense of ‘aspect’ or ‘aspect-seeing’ when applied to the idea of conceptions (Auffassung) in philosophy. A conception is a way of conceiving, a way of looking at, concepts.

1) As with visual aspects, no one conception, no one way of seeing or thinking about language in the activity of describing grammar, can claim to exclude another. No one can claim that only his conception is the right one. We can see language on the basis of what Wittgenstein’s commentators often call ‘the Augustinian picture’, and which Wittgenstein describes in PI §1 thus: ‘Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands’. This view does not exclude the possibility of our seeing things differently, for example, the possibility of our looking at language as use. The fact that we acknowledge one conception of meaning does not make a different conception of it illegitimate. On the contrary. To speak of one visual aspect is to presuppose that there are others. So with conceptions: to speak of one conception is to presuppose that there are others. Conceptions, like visual aspects, are essentially plural.
2) As I noted above, it is impossible to see a picture simultaneously as a duck and as a rabbit. If one sees something as a duck, then this is going to interfere with one’s seeing it as a rabbit. Visual aspects are in essence non-additive. That is, there is no way of combining two ways of seeing something to produce a single more comprehensive way of seeing it. So with conceptions: it is impossible to see thinking simultaneously as an inner accompaniment to speaking and as operating with signs. One can’t add conceptions together, any more than one can add visual aspects together. The result is not a more comprehensive vision of things, but a muddle. This is of major significance for the conduct of philosophy as Wittgenstein practices it. As Baker makes clear, when a philosophical conception becomes entrenched, it affects the whole of one’s way of thinking, and so one’s conduct of philosophy. Wittgenstein sees something of this in the hold that dogma can have over men’s mind. He writes:

Dogma is expressed in the form of an assertion, and it is unshakeable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be made to harmonise with it. . . . It is not a wall setting limits to what can be believed, but more like a brake which, however, practically serves the same purpose; it’s almost as though someone were trying to attach a weight to your feet to restrict your freedom of movement. This is how dogma becomes irrefutable and beyond the reach of attack (Culture and Value, p.28e).

3) Like aspect-seeing, ways of conceiving are in a sense voluntary. Thus it makes sense for Wittgenstein to advise his readers: ‘Try not to think of understanding as a “mental process” at all.—For that is the expression that confuses you’ (PI, §154); or ‘Don’t say: “There must be something in common, or they would not be called “games”’ (PI, §66). Hence, to think of things differently is not to discover something. Or perhaps one should say, that if it is a discovery, it is not the kind of discovery we thought it was. To speak of language as a game, or to use the phrase ‘language-game’ is not to state some hitherto unknown fact about language: it is to propose a new way of speaking, a new comparison or analogy. Wittgenstein puts it this way: ‘The language-games are set up as objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities’ (PI, §130).
4) Conceptions are, so to speak, ways of looking at concepts. He says: ‘We want to establish an order in our knowledge of the use of language: an order with a particular end in view; one out of many possible orders; not the order’ (PI, §132). This means that, even more clearly than is the case with visual aspects, the proposal and acknowledgement of conceptions presupposes the mastery of concepts. A conception can only be displaced by another conception. So, for example, no feature of our actual use of a word (such as ‘meaning’ or ‘thinking’) can logically exclude my ‘seeing’, say, meaning as naming on the Augustinian model or thinking as an inner process. It is only if I come to see the concept under another conception that my seeing it in this way be can be interrupted. Here is another example, cited by Baker, this time not from Wittgenstein but Friedrich Waismann: someone might be inclined to say that every sentence, every statement, must be made up of parts. That is, if one believes that the individual words in a language name objects, then it will seem that sentences must be made up of a combination of such names; sentences must be composite (PI §1). (This picture derives from Augustine’s picture of the essence of language, addressed by Wittgenstein in §1 of PI.)
5) And even in the case where a single word functions as a sentence, it might be maintained that here, too, the information must be conveyed, not by a single symbol alone, but by something which has at least two parts—namely, the single word and the situation in which it is embedded. One might try to refute this by a ‘counterexample’ such as the word ‘Restaurant’ on a sign above the entrance to a building. But the person gripped by this conception might reply, justifiably, that it is not the word alone but the word together with the whole situation in which it is integrated that makes up a sentence [See The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy, ed. Rom Harré (London: Macmillan, 1997), p. 317]. Waismann offers various examples whose purpose is to get the person in the grip of such a view to see where it goes wrong. But, clearly, such a conception cannot be refuted by pointing to any fact of the matter, nor does Waismann do so.
6) As with visual aspects, there is the possibility of blindness. Conceptions may be visible to one person, invisible to another. Indeed, conceptions may be visible to one generation or culture, and invisible to another. Thus there can be conception-blindness, as well as aspect-blindness. ‘The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.—And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful’ (PI, §129). Making such a conception visible requires waging war on the habits of a lifetime, and, as Wittgenstein emphasised again and again, probably against the spirit of the culture in which one lives. We need, for example, to mount a resistance to our preoccupation with the method of science. We need to stand against the force of Western civilisation and its fascination with the ideal of progress. Wittgenstein’s goal was nothing less than effecting a radical conversion, a transformation in our ways of thinking.
7) As seems to be implied by the foregoing, and as with visual aspects, I cannot demonstrate to someone that there is a possibility of seeing a conception in a particular way without getting him actually to see it in this new way.
8) The same issues concerning subjectivity and objectivity that were raised with respect of visual aspects apply to conceptions also. One might say, adapting Stanley Cavell on aesthetic judgement, that the problem of the philosopher, as understood here, is not to discount his subjectivity, but to include it; not to overcome it in agreement, but to master it in exemplary ways. The philosopher is looking for agreement in patterns (of support, objection, response), rather than of agreement in conclusions. The question being put is: don’t you see?
9) The possible conceptions of this or that concept cannot be exhaustively enumerated – anymore than all the possible objects of comparison can be enumerated.
10) The methods for getting someone to see things differently are similar to those needed for getting someone to see visual aspects. That is, emphasis, rearrangement, offering new objects of comparison, and so on.

These, then, are some of the similarities between visual aspect-seeing and conceptions. But there are also vital differences.

1) Any conception can be articulated. It thus makes sense, as Wittgenstein does in PI §81, to speak of language as a calculus, so that anyone who means and understands it must be operating a calculus according to definite rules.
2) A philosophical conception may be unconscious yet operative. That is, a conception may be operative in the way someone thinks, and yet that person may be unaware of it. Unconscious conceptions may need to be brought to the subject’s awareness – perhaps despite resistance (the echo of Freud here is deliberate). This will require the articulating, the making clear, of what the unconscious conception is, and, just as importantly, it will require the winning of the subject’s acknowledgement that this picture has indeed been operative.
3) To develop this point. Conceptions are also comparable to pictures, and are capable of exerting great influence over how we think of things. As Wittgenstein puts it: ‘A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably’ (PI, §115). It is part of the effect of pictures to hold us in thrall, and to have power over how see we things, of how we understand our concepts, particularly if they are unconscious, unacknowledged. The influence they exert is prior to argument or investigation, and they are, like shadows, unshakeable, unassailable. ‘For we can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)’ (PI, §131). Pictures can become so entrenched in our ways of thinking that replacing one picture by another may well require great determination and effort. And the reward may be uncertain. Wittgenstein said of himself: ‘Forcing my thoughts into an ordered sequence is a torment for me. . . . I squander an unspeakable amount of effort making an arrangement of my thoughts which may have value at all’ (CV, 28e).
4) It is also the case that we may wish to be enslaved to a particular way of thought. ‘These [problems] are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognise those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them’ (PI, §109). What is involved in getting free of such enslavement is nothing less than implanting a whole new way of thinking. It is a kind of conversion, a turning of ourselves around the axis of our real need.
5) One may offer reasons for trying to see something in a particular way. But nothing is proved; rather, a discussion is undertaken, and it may be that the questions that obsessed us vanish. In lectures delivered in 1946-7, Wittgenstein gave a summary of his procedure by drawing attention to ‘how I reacted to the question with which we started this term: “What is thinking?” In a way I tried to change your point of view: look at it this way. We are inclined to compare some phenomena with something: I ask you to compare them with something else. The question vanished when we classified phenomena not with something happening. We change the concept we have’ [Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Philosophy of Psychology, 1946-7, ed. P.T. Geach (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988), p. 168].

Wittgenstein’s method here is not to pinpoint a mistake in seeing thinking as an activity. Nothing is claimed to be discovered, but an alternative viewpoint is offered, a comparison put forward so that the question vanishes. That is, those troubled by the question no longer feel driven to ask it. They no longer want to ask it or to try to answer it. It seems to be what Wittgenstein had in mind when he originally chose as his motto for Philosophical Investigations a remark from Hertz: ‘our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask [the question as to the nature of force]’. In Waismann’s words, in the practice of ‘our method’, ‘the discussion brings [someone] gradually to see things in a different light. . . . [He] comes to see that something is wrong with the way he put his question, that the attainment of his object is no longer satisfying. . . . he gives up because he ‘sees’ the questions differently’ (HISP 20.

I will now put forward an example derived from a recent book by Stephen Mulhall that may go some way towards giving a summary of what I have been saying about aspect-seeing and conceptions. [I refer to Stephen Mulhall, Wittgenstein’s Private Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 1-9. In this book, Mulhall employs to decisive effect the so-called ‘resolute’ or ‘therapeutic’ approach to Wittgenstein.]

It has been argued that, by deliberately constructing nonsensical propositions, the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus means to direct our attention towards metaphysical insights which cannot be expressed in genuine propositions, but which genuine propositions nevertheless show by virtue of their intelligibility. According to the Tractatus, genuine propositions are composed of names that refer to objects. The way the names fit together in the proposition is the logical form of the proposition. Propositions have the same form (the same logical form) as the reality they depict or picture, and they depict this reality either truly or falsely. A genuine propositions is true if and only if there is a fact whose objects are named in the proposition, and which has the same logical form as the proposition. On this view, then, the proposition has a one-to-one isomorphism with what it represents. Propositions thus are either true or false (bipolar). It follows from this that any attempt to talk about logical form will result in nonsense (Unsinn): as Wittgenstein has it, ‘Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its reflection in language, language cannot represent’ (TLP 4.121). (Wittgenstein was to make a very similar point in his lectures shortly after his return to Cambridge in 1929: ‘that p or q follows from p and q is not a proposition: it has no use. What justifies the inference is seeing the internal relation. No rule of inference is needed to justify the inference, since if it were I would need another rule to justify the rule and that would lead to an infinite regress. We must see the internal relation’ [my emphases].)
Now let us suppose that someone claims that the author of the Tractatus advances bipolarity as a condition for the sense or meaningfulness of a proposition, and so licenses us to say that any proposition that is not bipolar is nonsense. (It has often been argued that what we are given by the nonsensical propositions of the Tractatus is an ineffable insight into the nature of the relation between language and reality, and it is this ineffable metaphysical insight that the Tractatus aims at getting us, in some almost mystical sense, to understand, to see.) However, there are other conceptions possible. We must carefully distinguish between what, in the idiom of the Tractatus (3.33-3.321), we are to call signs (understood as orthographic units) and symbols (logical units, signs in use—items belonging to a given logical category). The question now arises: what is it that lacks bipolarity? A string of signs or a complex of symbols? Clearly, no mere string of signs could either possess or lack bipolarity. But if we are in a position to treat some given string of signs as symbolising, then we must have already construed it as symbolising in a particular way, and hence assigned specific logical roles to its components. If so, the question of bipolarity comes too late; and if not—if we have not settled on a particular construal of it—then the question simply does not arise. In effect, all the work is being done by the clarification of meaning, and not by the application of a general doctrine based on bipolarity (or anything else) to whatever is thereby clarified. As Juliet Floyd has put it: ‘one aim of the Tractatus is to depict such notions as ‘the inferential order’, ‘the logical grammar of language’ and ‘the logical form of the proposition’ as chimeras. . . Frege and Russell write as if . . . there is a single context of expression within which we may discern the structure of thought . . . within which we can use logical notation to make perspicuous the logical order. In contrast, I have emphasized Wittgenstein’s insistence in the Tractatus that no single imposition of a logico-syntactic order on what we say is or can be the final word, the final way of expressing or depicting a thought. On the Tractatus view (as I interpret it) there is thinking without thoughts, thinking without an inferential order’ [Juliet Floyd, ‘Number and Ascription of Number in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus’, in From Frege to Wittgenstein, ed. Erich H. Reck (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 340].

To think without thinking, to think without an inferential order, is what it is to come to see the Tractatus under a new aspect. Indeed, it is to see the Tractatus as both being about, and enacting, that reorientation of perception and understanding that philosophy – as Wittgenstein presents it – aims at being. Thus, if there is anything to this account, then the relation between philosophy and logic may well appear in a new light. What Wittgenstein is doing, here in his early work, the Tractatus, as in his later, is, in part, bringing us to see the difference between drawing a conclusion and seeing, or bringing one to see, a new aspect. He is attempting to disabuse us of the assumption that our everyday abilities to distinguish sense from nonsense require a philosophical foundation or grounding. It is a project, one might say, of acknowledging our finitude.

To put this another way, in contrast to the presuppositions of Frege’s concept-script or of Principia Mathematica, the Tractatus shows that the analysis of language it presents in the form of an argument is not deducible from a single, authoritative law, embodying some homogeneous structure of representation, such as one based on a fundamental equivalence between the logical form of reality and the logical form of the proposition. The relation in Wittgenstein’s text between the experience of the limit—the meaningful proposition—and the limitlessness of experience—the recognition of nonsense—makes any such structure untenable. What Wittgenstein would have us recognise, when we come to understand him (TLP 6.54), is the unintelligibility of the attempt to subordinate our lives with language, whether that involves statements of fact, tautology, contradiction, ethical discord or difference, to any single, totalising concept whatsoever, whether of logical form or of the general form of the proposition. What his method aims to bring us to see, here in the Tractatus, and also in his later work, though in a very different manner, is that any such attempt to establish an authoritative law in this sense involves us in an experience of the interruption of representation as such. In showing us such an attempt for what it is, the text of the Tractatus brings into play what one might call a vacant interval, a syncope, that suspends representation in order that we may respond to what might appear to be a law beyond the law, a law that enables but also disables representation as such. In our coming to see Wittgenstein’s proposition as nonsense, we are brought to respect, to see, both the limits of sense and the unintelligibility of the idea of going beyond those limits, that is, the unintelligibility of a step beyond into what one might call the limitlessness of the limit. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (TLP 7).

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.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008


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.