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Why must there be something (or anything) at all? Wittgenstein, philosophy, and religious belief.

"I have been reading in a German author, a contemporary of Kant's, Hamann, where he says, commenting on the story of the Fall in Genesis: 'How like God to wait until the cool of the evening before confronting Adam with his transgression.' Now I wouldn't for the life of me say, 'how like God'. I wouldn't claim to know how God should act" (Wittgenstein to his student, Drury).

Since what Wittgenstein says about religious belief is not neatly packed into clear theses, but rather proceeds by way of ongoing investigations, this paper has two interwoven parts. First, I discuss salient characteristics of the Lectures on Religious Belief (hereafter LRB) as a whole. Second, while examining what Wittgenstein says directly about religious belief, I offer criticisms, in order to support my reading of him as a deeply religious thinker. I follow the text of Cyril Barrett (ed.), Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (Oxford, 1970).

1. Salient Characteristics of the LRB

In his LRB, Wittgenstein was not concerned with presenting theses on beliefs. He simply did not write in the style I believe this or that. Instead of a head-on attack, he studied around a problem by way of investigations. The untidy presentation of what little Wittgenstein said about religious belief makes it difficult to use his corpus to support, defend or denounce theses. The LRB do not stem directly from him. They were compiled by one of his students, Rush Rhees, and based on a series of lectures given by Wittgenstein in 1938. As Wittgenstein often mentioned, he was not in favor of students taking down copious notes while he lectured. We read Wittgenstein to Drury, "If you write these spontaneous remarks down, some day someone may publish them as my considered opinions. I don't want that done. For I am talking now freely as my ideas come, but all this will need a lot more thought and better expression." So, some of the existing compilation may not be exactly how Wittgenstein intended to be understood. Interestingly, however, there is reason to believe that these notes might be fairly accurate, since many commented how slowly Wittgenstein lectured, thus making it possible for nearly verbatim note-taking. Perhaps, as Wittgenstein foresaw, what he had to say about religious belief was just that--rigorous, often confusing investigations, and not theses. Fortunately, for our benefit, Rhees did not follow Wittgenstein's note-taking directive.

The LRB are puzzling. Some remarks conform to grammatical sentence structure, while others do not. Others have a philosophical sense and depart from traditional sentence structure altogether. Still others make sense in sentence structure, grammar, and sound philosophy. What is Wittgenstein's overall thesis? There is none, or rather, if one exists, it is deeply embedded within the text. Although the LRB seem to present themselves as a set of oracular aphorisms, some major themes surface. First, as an extension of the Tractatus, in the LRB, Wittgenstein makes a distinction (on paper) between religious belief and general empirical data. Second, the issues of evidence and certainty with respect to religious belief and empirical data are exposed as puzzling. Third, questions of criteria, historic fact, scientific fact, and the language of religious belief are at work in the text. Fourth, an investigation of the eminence of religious beliefs as absolutes rather than as hypotheses or opinions is made (cf. Lecture on Ethics, examining relative and ethical judgments). Fifth, the matter of the "firmness" of religious beliefs described as a picture that relates to experiences surfaces. Last, Wittgenstein questions the veracity of explicating "what is called religious belief" amid a sui generis approach in which one does not subject religious beliefs to a foreign framework of verification (Hudson, 1968).

Gareth Moore was precisely concerned with "what it is to believe in God." Wittgenstein was not only concerned with this point, but also what it would mean to follow a certain life prescription in accordance with such a belief. Norman Malcolm argues there are certain aspects of Wittgenstein's work that can be interpreted as being religiously motivated. Malcolm comments on the question of whether Wittgenstein was indeed religious: "If to be 'a religious person' means to lead 'a religious life', then I think he was not a religious person. Yet he reflected often and deeply on what it would mean to live such a life. He was dismayed by his own character, perceiving himself as vain, cowardly, false. Sometimes he suffered the anguish that has pushed others into a religious life... At times he felt a dread of the Last Judgment--as when he wrote to me, "'May I prove not too much of a skunk when I shall be tried'" (1994). It appears Wittgenstein wanted to explicate two interwoven themes: What is this object called religious belief? and is it solid enough to support my entire life's practices? Given this gloss, some not only consider Wittgenstein to have been a religious thinker, but a sophisticated, deep, and cogent one at that.

What is Wittgenstein's strategy? He employs philosophy as an important tool and useful activity, rather than a series of definitive solutions. His philosophy aims for self-consistency in the technique of using language to reveal its "depth grammar." That is, Wittgenstein investigates tacit presuppositions to show what kind of an object religious belief is and works to map out its logical frontiers. In doing so, he can differentiate between certain questions and answers. "Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is (theology as grammar)" (Wittgenstein, 1958; Fann, 1969). As W.D. Hudson points out, "to be a religious believer, whatever else it may mean, is to participate in a language-game or universe of discourse," and "theology stands to religious belief, so understood, as its grammar does to a language" (1968). When using language, there is a distinction between the world of empirical fact and religious belief. Amid others, one difficulty that arises is when the same term operates on two different levels. For example, "good" can be a descriptive term (good breakfast) or transcendental term (good deity). There is a difference of technique, and, for Wittgenstein, the religious believer must work to explicate the grammar of this technique (Keightley, 1976).

Religious beliefs highlight facts just as empirical science does; yet, facts in one field are different from facts in the other. In the LRB, he does not pronounce judgment; he is unsure and does not want to make premature discriminations. Like an inquisitive toddler, everything is not only sayable but why not? in its entirety, partiality, or not at all (Putnam, 1993). For Wittgenstein, the meaning of religious language involves utility within a context. As he stated, "One must always ask oneself: is this word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?" (1958). In the doing of the religious belief, one must see whether or not it follows its embedded language-game. For Hudson, Wittgenstein "implicitly took discovering the meaning of language to be like understanding a game by watching it played and inferring the rules inductively" (1975). Place and function are critical; place refers to the religious belief's position within the language-game it belongs; function refers to how the religious belief is used. "What we do in a language-game always rests on a tacit presupposition" (Wittgenstein, 1958). The tacit presupposition is what kind of object is God? and the way to crack open what that means is to investigate the language-game's position and function.

2. What Wittgenstein Says about Religious Belief

A. Explicating Language Games

The LRB is divided into three unnamed sections. It begins: "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" (LRB, 53). Wittgenstein provides a scenario in which one group of people adopt such a belief framework, and another group who do not, for to say such a thing would be, if nothing else, just an odd thing to say. Are we to infer these two groups correspond to the religious believer and the non-believer, for Wittgenstein? Do both groups begin from the same starting point? That is, do they use a common language, but not an agreed upon meaning or mental picture?

Does a difference between the believer and non-believer only mean that the believer believes in things like the Last Judgment, while the non-believer does not? There seems to be more than simply a stated belief and its contrary. Wittgenstein does not assert that he is a believer or non-believer, for he is puzzled exactly what to make of the matter and therefore any reason(s) to adopt either classification. Do religious believers really walk around saying things like "I shall think of you after my death if that should be possible"? And, if so, what does this talk have to do with belief, if anything? Could not a non-believer say the same statement and mean the same thing as when a believer says it? But, before that, what exactly does the believer mean when he says this, and how is it different, if at all, from when the non-believer says it? Does a level of sincerity and/or intentionality constitute its meaning? Reading Wittgenstein, it seems that he even boldly asks 'why does it have to mean anything at all?' Amid all the questions, there is a point--Wittgenstein is concerned with exposing the grammatical rules and functionality of the language game of religious and non-religious believers.

"During the war, Wittgenstein saw consecrated bread being carried in chromium steel. This struck him as ludicrous" (LRB, 53). As Wittgenstein said to Drury, "... During the war the Germans got Krupps to make a steel, bomb-proof container to convey the consecrated host to the troops in the front line. This was disgusting. It should have had no protection from human hands at all." What are we to make of this statement? Perhaps Wittgenstein considered this practice as "disgusting" because of the way in which the believer went about distributing Holy Communion to the soldiers. I do not think he was attacking the core belief of the Eucharist as being the Body of Christ. I also do not think he was defending such a belief either by any means. I think he was critically probing the way a religious practice was being conducted. That is, he was concerned with how techniques were demonstrated within a language game. It seems that, for Wittgenstein, any attempt to protect the Body of Christ (what the host means for Christian believers) by entering into the context and use of artillery equipment is simply not where one should go in their thinking about this particular language game. If God is almighty, omnipotent, and everlasting for such believers, then how absurd it is to protect this God from an enemy bullet!

Maybe a literal encasing of a belief in bombproof steel is an abomination of what the religious believer preaches, for Wittgenstein, and thus considered disgusting. While religious believers might consider the steel container as a pragmatic tool to use in wartime because it keeps the host intact, it seems that Wittgenstein looks at it differently (with different mental pictures). Is it because he thinks the practice is a profane technique of the Christian's consecrated profession of belief--its place and function within a language-game? Why would the religious believer want to separate the host from touching human hands? Is Wittgenstein implying this? We cannot be certain. Perhaps the religious believer's intention is simply to maintain a level of reverence for the host? However, it does seem apparent that somewhere along the way the religious believer/Eucharistic minister went about his belief system and its technique in an odd way for Wittgenstein. Is it because the grammar of the technique was not properly explicated? Is that even a relevant question? And 'why not?' for is this not an example of a religious belief in its own particular language-game? Or was Wittgenstein disgusted because he thought the religious believer should want to connect with his God and therefore not create a vessel that separates a believer from his God? I think this line of critical inquiry that presses what religious believers do with their beliefs is precisely Wittgenstein's focus (Fann, 1969).

"Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don'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'" (LRB, 53). According to Wittgenstein, if a person does not believe, it does not necessarily mean the person denies the belief and/or believes the contrary. Given his blunt, self-proclaimed position of puzzlement regarding religious belief, one could easily imagine him asking 'Why should it mean this?' Wittgenstein might also ask: 'Why does it have to mean this?' 'Why could it not mean this?' 'Why can't it just mean this?' and neither state nor infer anything else. It is difficult to understand what believers are saying and intending (their claims) for Wittgenstein. Are we to understand the religious believer as being different from the nonbeliever since both do not hold the same position? Notice that I say 'nonbeliever' rather than strict opponent to religious belief or against religious belief, for it is clear that Wittgenstein, himself, was unsure what to make of religious belief and is therefore not placing himself as defender or denouncer, but rather critical examiner.

Is there more to Wittgenstein's mentioning of the Last Judgment than a simple reference to a certain kind of religious belief? In other words, would it suffice to replace 'I believe in the Last Judgement' with 'I believe in 'X'? One cannot be sure. However, what we are given is what we are left to make sense of, and it seems that the 'Last Judgement' enters the scene for the purpose of contextualizing a belief as a belief in something rather than nothing. At the same time, it does not necessarily mean there needs to be a belief of something, or some part of a something, or a belief in anything at all. If one believes in the Last Judgment and I do not, could it not simply mean that I do not believe in the Last Judgement and nothing else? I may not necessarily be in contradiction with the believer's claim. What is the opposite of believing in the Last Judgement? If there is an opposite, it would not be opposite in the everyday sense that 'on' is the opposite of 'off,' and 'up' from 'down,' and the letters 'gt' from 'tg.' Would such an opposite in religious belief mean a complete switching of a belief referent as, for example, 'I believe the moon is made of silicon' and 'I believe the moon is made of iron'? What would it mean to say such things? If I replaced a word contained in the first belief above, 'I believe the moon is made of silicon,' so that it changed to 'I believe the tire is made of silicon,' would I believe the opposite or still believe the opposite for Wittgenstein? Does it make a difference which words I replace? It is not at all clear. Perhaps it is not something that must be done--it just is or just is not and no more (Malcolm, 1994).

"Suppose someone were a believer and said: "I believe in a Last Judgement," and I said: "Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly" (LRB, 53). In such a brief conversation, there is puzzlement and rightfully so. Each word carries with it enormous confusion and questions. What does Wittgenstein mean by 'possibly'? It is not clear. Does 'possibly' refer to a conjecture? Religious beliefs are not about conjecture, are they? If so, would they be considered religious beliefs, or vacillating opinions? It seems that Wittgenstein is tossing in the word 'possibly' and all its customary language-game techniques, in order to highlight whether the word is always used in the original structure of its language-game. Consider Richard Swinburne's inductive case for theism, where we can ask if this language of probability even holds a place in the language of religious belief. When religious believers talk about beliefs, they usually do not employ this 'possible' language. To many, it seems utterly strange if a person said "I believe there is probably a triune being called God." What would (or could) we make of such a statement? Perhaps a great deal, perhaps not much at all, perhaps nothing at all. Are there degrees of beliefs and believers for Wittgenstein? Though it is evident that he departs from the simple dichotomy employed in the Tractatus when he tackles the messy business of religious belief in the LRB, he still appears to use the strict believer/ non-believer model for some reason. Old habits are hard to break, I suppose. Perhaps the non-believer classification is much larger than simply 'a person that does not believe 'X' religious belief.' It may involve a whole range of degrees within itself, while still not being a position of strict opposition or contradiction.

One may also ask why belief in the Last Judgment is presented as a statement alone and not explained further. For example, saying 'I believe in the Last Judgment' is different from saying 'I believe there is a German aeroplane overhead.' What, then, distinguishes the two statements? The first mentions what many would call a 'formal' religious belief, while the second a belief based upon empirically verifiable data (a visual observation). What, if anything, could we make of the use of 'possibly' when two such people talked to one another regarding their presentation of beliefs? "Religious beliefs... appear to be in watertight compartments, impregnable to outside attack," as Cyril Barrett mentions, and "anyone who attempts to refute a statement or expression belonging to one language-game according to the rules of another, entirely different one, is making a mistake" and "if he thinks he has succeeded, the mistake is compounded, for he has deceived himself" (1991). However, it does not necessarily mean that such language-games are free from internal and external critique and discussion. A sui generis model seems to be a copout, especially if we are not sure what constitutes religious belief to begin with. Maybe we would be making a mistake if judging prematurely. If sui generis is appropriate when questioning the 'grammatical' legitimacy of words such as 'possibly,' then what is the criterion(ia)? I am not yet convinced. 'Possibly' seems easier to swallow when I present my belief about believing in an innovative car that might transform the automobile industry for the better compared to when 'possibly' is used in the Last Judgement belief. Perhaps 'possibly' suggests a further problem when used imprecisely, like when people indiscriminately use the words believe, think, and feel as synonyms. "That is partly why you don't get in religious controversies, the form of controversy where one person is sure of the thing, and the other says: 'Well, possibly.'" (LRB, 56). Perhaps 'possibly' should have been left unsaid.

B. The Question of Evidence

"Suppose somebody made this guidance for this 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 rather by regulating for in all his life" (LRB, 53-54). Wittgenstein now introduces religious belief as a prescription for regulating one's life. Is Wittgenstein approaching the topic of evidence in religious belief with a sui generis model and thus not subjecting it to a foreign system of verification, as Hudson maintains? This talk of religious belief as unshakeable and demonstrated "not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for" in all the believer's life seems to suggest that such a belief cannot be proved in the way 'I believe 5 apples + 3 apples = 8 apples' could be proved (by ostensible definition), as well as 'I believe 5 apples + 3 apples = 10 apples' could be disproved. They are simply fundamentally different things (Griffiths, 1990). What fact(s), if any, would provide evidence for the belief in the Last Judgement? Wittgenstein presents the interlocutor, Lewy, who distinguishes between beliefs that are considered "well-established" from ones considered not well-established. Why would a religious believer believe if he did not base it upon the usual grounds for belief? It seems Wittgenstein summons the religious believer's reasoning up for investigation, namely one that is considered firm for the believer "because the man risks things on account of it which he would not do on things which are by far better established for him." And perhaps this is reason enough for the believer's believing in what he believes, and no more?

Consider the following instance: An elderly mother continues to love and support her habitually lazy, conniving, and socially deviant daughter because the mother wishes to gain eternal peace in Heaven with her God and sees her mother-daughter relationship as a way to gain God's favor. Can anything that an outsider rationally explains to the mother convince the mother that supporting her daughter is enabling the daughter's poor character and therefore not the prudent choice? Possibly, or possibly no, or never in a million years. The point is that though the mother and the outsider might consider the same scenario, they see it very differently, or simply differently. Does the disagreement stem from a lack of solid evidence? I do not think so, for the mother is unlikely to see the outsider's so-called evidence as having anything, something, and/or nothing at all to do with the mother's belief that her daughter needs her mother's love and support (period)! Why does Sophocles' Antigone risk her life? She does so because, though one of her brothers is a traitor to the state, he is still her brother, and that is reason enough (or no reason at all, or whatever one may wish to call it) to urge her to believe in and fight for his honor. Would such scenarios refer to this "regulating of one's life" that Wittgenstein mentions when referring to how a religious belief works amid a language-game as being enough to change one's life because of it?

Such reasons "are, in a way, quite inconclusive" and "the point is that if there were evidence, this would in fact destroy the whole business" since "anything that I normally call evidence wouldn't in the slightest influence me" (LRB, 56). (Cf. "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" (LRB, 54). We are now discussing beliefs that are totally unlike beliefs about the weather forecast, German aeroplanes overhead, and basic empirically verifiable beliefs. Is it a matter of contextual nuance alone? Are religious belief and its language games the restricted domain of the grammarian alone, for many non-specialists sincerely claim to hold religious beliefs, too?

"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" (LRB, 55). Why, for Wittgenstein, can't you "say they believe different things"? Is it because one needs to explicate the grammar of the technique for each believer's language-game within the regulating of each person's life? Do not both persons play by the same rules within the language-game? It is difficult to understand where Wittgenstein is going, if anywhere, regarding believing different things. When faced with the question of whether or not he believes the opposite if he does not call an illness a punishment compared to someone who does call an illness a punishment, Wittgenstein replies "I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures" (LRB, 55). In response, like an inquisitive toddler, one might ask 'Well, do you?... believe the opposite?' And perhaps Wittgenstein would respond, "you can call it believing the opposite, but it is entirely different from what we would normally call believing the opposite" (LRB, 55). Wittgenstein simply does not think about the phrase or meaning of 'illness as retribution or not retribution,' for he says "I don't have any thoughts of punishment" (LRB, 55). He neither defends nor denounces it. He says, "It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this" (LRB, 55). Given the same reasoning, Wittgenstein would not consider himself to contradict the believer either. It is not a matter of agreeing, disagreeing or contradicting, but rather Wittgenstein having different pictures, and 'illness as retribution or illness not as retribution' is simply not in the picture at all (Putnam, 1993). The ship has passed unnoticed.

Though having different pictures than the religious believer, Wittgenstein is still able to understand the religious believer's talk in one sense. That is, the words have meaning for him. What he cannot do is intelligibly link "these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them" with anything else in a meaningful way (LRB, 55). Why? It seems he and the religious believer have two different sets of referent pictures. For Wittgenstein, "an enormous difference would be between those people for whom the picture is constantly in the foreground, and the others who just didn't use it at all" (LRB, 56). This is why Wittgenstein designates the non-believer as housing no such pictures about religious belief--the walls of his house are bare, but he does not even see them as bare.

Wittgenstein further investigates the notion of evidence, now within the context of the claim "that Christianity rests on an historic basis" (LRB, 57). Indubitability is not enough for the religious believer, according to Wittgenstein, since "indubitability wouldn't be enough to make me change my whole life" (LRB, 57). What, if anything, would be enough? If anything, it seems it would not involve historic, factual information such as Jesus of Nazareth had a size eleven sandal, or there are medical records indicating his mother, Mary, had bad asthma. While these data might constitute some rudimentary evidence for the historic size eleven sandal and cryptic medical records of Mary, it seems that Wittgenstein's point is that such evidence is no evidence at all, or, more precisely, that it is evidence but would not mean anything meaningful to someone believing in the Son of God and Virgin Mother. Why not? Is it because the data is not clear enough, or lengthy enough, or scientific enough? I do not think so. Rather, if one could pile up evidence (historic and/or scientific) to the rafters, it seems that, for Wittgenstein, the religious believer believes for reasons in addition to, or other than, such data. Is Wittgenstein intimating the concept of religious faith, namely believing in what is unseen?

Wittgenstein says "Father O'Hara is one of those people who make it a question of science" (LRB, 57). According to Wittgenstein, O'Hara misunderstands the appropriation of evidence, namely that one does not understand evidence in religious belief the same way one understands evidence in science. Having insufficient evidence, or lacking complete evidence, as being reasonable or unreasonable, does not enter the religious belief arena for Wittgenstein. He explains that religious beliefs involving the Last Judgement and the like not only differ from the claims of the non-believer with "respect to what they are about," but also consist of "entirely different connections" than do scientifically based beliefs. Wittgenstein's point is that if O'Hara's understanding of religious beliefs is employed within the framework of scientific evidence, then it would only lead to religious belief constructed from mere superstition alone (LRB, 58-59; Hudson, 1968). Thus enters sui generis again.

Next, Wittgenstein investigates the technique in explicating the grammar of religious belief when talking about 'God' and what a picture pictures. For Wittgenstein, the word 'God' is often used "like a word representing a person" (LRB, 59). (I read this as akin to the way Richard Swinburne often discusses 'God talk'). For Wittgenstein, one can see what a picture pictures if one is looking at pictures of family relatives or objects. It seems explicitly referential. However, when we talk about a picture of 'God,' Wittgenstein is not certain what the picture pictures. In one sense, he understands what the word God means when uttered in conversation and in stories about God. Yet, Wittgenstein claims he is not able to link the word 'God' with a particular picture of meaning. People claim they believe in God on evidence and/or religious experiences. So what? It still does not serve as enough to make Wittgenstein "able to say now whether I can say of a sentence 'God exists' that your evidence is unsatisfactory or insufficient" (LRB, 60). What is evidence, and what exactly does experience mean? Your belief that you saw a friend walking in the distance this morning might prove to be incorrect if the medical examiner already pronounced the same friend dead yesterday. This belief is verified by science. So, maybe we should not use the word belief when involving a scientific observation? But, then again, are not our scientific judgments based on some sort of belief framework? Scientists proceed by beliefs, hypotheses based on burning questions and hopes. So, too, do religious believers, but in a different sense. However, belief in God's existence is simply not this type of belief scenario and verification system in Wittgenstein's view.

"Where what is said sounds a bit absurd I would say: 'Yes, in this case insufficient evidence.' If altogether absurd, then I wouldn't" (LRB, 60). For Wittgenstein, religious belief seems to fall under the realm of the second instance above, the altogether absurd. Why? Perhaps it is because religious belief language concerns claims religious believers make that are not based on empirical evidence in O'Hara's understanding, but rather based on... not empirical evidence. It seems that Wittgenstein is suggesting that religious belief is likened to a huge problem that escalates when intelligent repair technicians (religious believers) do not 'fix' it right. Maybe there is nothing to fix. Perhaps it just is, and no more. "I could imagine that someone showed an extremely passionate belief in such a phenomenon, and I couldn't approach his belief at all by saying: 'This could just as well have been brought about by so and so' because he could think this blasphemy on my side" (LRB, 61). Comparing religious belief evidence to the way we usually think about and use evidence is simply a precarious thing to do for Wittgenstein ("Suppose someone said: 'This is poor evidence.' I would say: 'If you want to compare it with the evidence for it's raining to-morrow it is no evidence at all'" (LRB, 61).

C. Employing Imprecise Language?

Is religious belief simply the result of using imprecise language? For Wittgenstein, "in order to see what the explanation is I should have to see the sum, to see in what way it is done, what he makes follow from it, what are the different circumstances under which he does it, etc." (LRB, 62). Religious belief may be called a blunder in a sense, for it is an intellectual quandary that generates further quandaries of how we use and understand language. Nonetheless, I think Wittgenstein still advocates that religious belief should be addressed through all of these grammatical lenses, so to speak. I agree with him that we should not "pre-suppose we have a broad basis on which we agree" when it comes to religious belief. Perhaps it is our job to pluck out (explicate) this moving target known as language.

"'Seeing a dead friend,' again means nothing much to me at all. I don't think in these terms. I don't say to myself: 'I shall see so and so again' ever" (LRB, 63). For Wittgenstein, one needs to teach another the technique of using a particular picture. If the student does not see the picture, how can one teach the student to explicate its meaning? Michelangelo's painting, God created man, contains a painted picture of God and Adam. But, it also represents a Biblical story within a context of divine creationism. For Wittgenstein, it is not as if one could clearly account for 'what the object God is' by pointing to the picture of God in the painting ostensibly, as one could do for a picture of a plant in the painting that sits on the window ledge. (The polyvocality of language, as examined by Thomas Aquinas, among others, namely univocity, equivocity, and analogy, come to mind). They would be totally different pictures for Wittgenstein, just as the pictures of God and Adam are different (Griffiths, 1990).

"Today I saw a poster saying: 'Dead' Undergraduate speaks.' The inverted commas mean: 'He isn't really dead.' 'He isn't what people call dead. They call it 'dead' not quite correctly'" (LRB, 65). For Wittgenstein, there seems to be a way in which the statement makes sense and one in which it does not. Clearly the dead corpse does not speak, but a live person who is called 'dead' somehow or other. Does it require that a religious believer misuse language, in order to state claims about religious belief? Perhaps Wittgenstein would not be alarmed at all if he walked past a bulletin board and read the words "Dead Undergraduate speaks" if dead people customarily gave lectures at his university. The point is that dead people do not give lectures. If they did, then posters advertising their lectures would be just like a poster that advertised an upcoming football game. We would not explicate the grammar of such advertisements. Is there more to Wittgenstein's example than an incorrect use of language? Perhaps he is not simply designating improper language usage at all, but rather investigating the varied explorations of language at work within certain rules and nuances. I do not think he is attempting to reveal a little blunder, but instead a huge one when it comes to what most would consider secular language and its language-games. There is more to it than a simple typographical error or intentional pun by the poster author. There seems to be a fundamental thing we do with religious and non-religious language that confuses, yet intrigues, Wittgenstein. Why would we use the word 'dead' when talking about religious belief? This is an example of how nonreligious language usage spills into religious belief language. It is puzzling, indeed. "What was it like to have different ideas of death?" asks Wittgenstein (LRB, 68). It seems that if an 'idea of death' is to be respected as relevant, then it must be inserted into our explicated language-game. Religious language seems to call for different pictures, and one might ask if there really could be one way alone of seeing religious beliefs, or non-religious beliefs for that matter.

Wittgenstein presents a scenario of thinking of one's brother in America and whether we can be sure that our thought is indeed of one's brother in America (LRB, 66). Is Wittgenstein suggesting that there is more to the meaning of secular language than we think in both this scenario of the 'brother in America' and the 'Dead Undergraduate speaks' example? It seems so. Then, if there is more to secular language, what does this show, if anything? I read Wittgenstein as saying that the meaning of religious language may be as expansive and nuanced as non-religious language, or vice versa. The 'brother in America' scenario is another example to investigate the working pathways of a possible linkage between tacit presuppositions and language-games.

"'My idea of death is the separation of the soul from the body'--if we know what to do with these words. He can also say: 'I connect with the word 'death' a certain picture--a woman lying in her bed'--that may or may not be of some interest" (LRB, 69). Again, Wittgenstein seems confused exactly what to make of such an idea of death. What if the 'idea of death' does not even enter into one's thoughts as when 'seeing a dead friend' did not, for Wittgenstein? What is one to make of such words as 'my idea of death is the separation of the soul from the body,' if anything? Linking the words to a meaning is what interests Wittgenstein. Knowing what to do with a picture and its associated language also deeply interests him. Then again, as Wittgenstein closes the LRB, ".you may not wish to draw any such consequences, and this is all there is to it--except further muddles" (72).


Wittgenstein was genuinely puzzled, yet intrigued, about religious belief. It seems non-religious belief had a similar effect on him, too. Examining language and what one does with it as a form of life were of crucial importance for Wittgenstein. Some say he did not reach great heights, if any at all. I disagree. Although Wittgenstein did not consider himself 'a religious man,' he was deeply absorbed within the context and language of belief, and thus its affective character. What is the object 'God'? How does one employ the expansiveness of language to get to God? What would it mean to follow a certain life prescription in accordance with such religious beliefs? How does one square theory with practice? I think it fitting to speak of Wittgenstein and his work on religious belief as following his own investigative prescription, namely probing religious and non-religious language, in order to make sense of its explicated grammar-in-action. Or perhaps, we might follow Wittgenstein's modest advice to Drury and agree that "all this will need a lot more thought and better expression," for the genuine religious believer must begin, proceed with, and conclude the discussion with a difficult task--humility.


Barrett, Cyril (1991), Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief. Oxford: Blackwell.

Barrett, Cyril (ed.) (1970), Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fann, K.T. (1969), Wittgenstein's Conception of Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Griffiths, A.P. (ed.) (1990), Wittgenstein Centenary Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hudson, W.D. (1975), Wittgenstein and Religious Belief. Oxford: Macmillan.

Hudson, W.D. (1968), Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Bearing of his Philosophy upon Religious Belief. London: Lutterworth Press.

Keightley, Alan (1976), Wittgenstein, Grammar and God. London: Epworth Press.

Malcolm, Norman (1994), Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Moore, Gareth (1989), Believing in God. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Putnam, Hilary (1993), Renewing Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1961), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness). London: Routledge.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958), Philosophical Investigations (trans. G.E.M. Anscombe). Oxford: Blackwell.


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Title Annotation:Ludwig Wittgenstein
Author:Parmach, Robert J.
Publication:Review of Contemporary Philosophy
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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