Thursday, August 24, 2006

Wittgenstein and Radical Orthodoxy

This was a paper given to the Jubilee Group, 1 February 2000

Good evening everyone. I would first of all like to thank James for his paper, and particularly for letting me have sight of it before tonight, so that I could make sure that we didn’t overlap! I should begin my remarks with some general comments about the radical orthodox. I am, generally speaking, quite sympathetic to what they are trying to do, and I agree with James that they represent a significant step forward for Anglican theology. In particular, Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is a marvellous, wonderful book, which, although difficult, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the present state of theology in this country, and perhaps more widely. The Radical Orthodox are saying something important, and I believe that much of their analysis is correct. I am not qualified to say whether their treatment of, for example, Duns Scotus and the univocity of being is either fair or credible, but their overall story is one that I find compelling.

Now, my talk is going to be both more general and more specific than James’. I am going to concentrate on one aspect of the Radical Orthodoxy project – their understanding of language – and critique it from a Wittgensteinian point of view. I will first outline what Wittgenstein’s understanding of language is; then I will summarise the radical orthodox critique of Wittgenstein, and show the place of that critique in their overall project. Finally I will show how their misunderstanding of Wittgenstein throws into relief a much larger point about radical orthodoxy as a whole, relating to their methodology and their overall approach to theology. So you could say that I am wanting to look at Radical Orthodoxy through both ends of a telescope, leaving out most of the material which lies in plain view. I just hope that I can keep each argument in focus…

The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein’s view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. (For the purposes of this paper I am just going to consider the spoken word). In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have. Think of the expression ‘I need some water’. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: ‘I need some water’ – where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? I am sure that given some time, you could think up all sorts of contexts where this one phrase had significantly different meanings. In other words, where the surface grammar of a comment was the same, but the depth grammar was radically different.

Now, for Wittgenstein, the point of this grammatical investigation was that you achieved clarity about any questions that are at issue. If there is a philosophical discussion, then the way to proceed is to conduct a grammatical investigation of the words and concepts that are in dispute. To look at how different words are used in their normal context. For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts, in other words, to investigate their grammar. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts are used in our language that gives them their importance. A grammatical investigation in the Wittgensteinian sense is one that looks at how words are used within a lived context. Hence there is the need to investigate the nature of language games and forms of life, which are the usual phrases which you hear when people talk about Wittgenstein. This is a method, and it is with this method that Wittgenstein’s true genius lies. In contrast to almost all philosophers within the Western tradition Wittgenstein was not concerned with providing answers to particular questions. Rather, he wished to gain clarity about the question at issue, in order therefore to dissolve the controversy. He wrote: ‘Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.’

An example might help to make his view clearer. A traditional metaphysical question might be ‘What is time’? We want to know what the word means, and because the word is a noun we look to see what it is that is referred to. Yet there is nothing to which we can point and say ‘That is time’. Thus philosophers are puzzled, and trying to answer questions such as this is the classic job of a philosopher, or more precisely, a metaphysician. For Wittgenstein, though, the question is without sense. Wittgenstein would say, why do we assume that there must be something to which the word refers? Look at how the word is actually used in our language, and see if that enlightens your consideration. Thus, when we look at the contexts in which we use the sentence ‘Time flew by’ they would tend to describe times when we are particularly absorbed in a piece of work, or where we are with friends having an enjoyable evening. The phrase derives its meaning from that context. To then ask, ‘What is time?’ would be absurd. What we must always have at the forefront of our minds is the organic basis of the language that we use. Language has evolved for particular purposes, it has various distinct uses, and there is no necessity that there is a clear and logical basis for it. One of Wittgenstein’s best images is to suggest looking at language as like a tool box, with different tools to perform different functions. Why should there be something which all tools have in common? And why are you so concerned to find it? Wittgenstein is very concerned to ease the philosophical mind away from its tendency for abstract theorising, and to focus it on everyday details, to see what language is actually doing in a given situation.

Perhaps it is now time to examine what the philosophers of the radical orthodox make of all this. Conor Cunningham’s critique can be quite simply summarised in the following way. When Wittgenstein makes the distinction between surface and depth grammar he is developing a neo-Kantian philosophy, where certain intellectual distinctions, for example terms like language game, govern your understanding of the world. In Cunningham’s words, “What Wittgenstein does in his later works is to provide what could be called an ‘ad hoc transcendentalism’.” Wittgenstein, therefore, has an unstated theory of meaning. That theory of meaning is not one that takes account of God – it is not therefore a theology – and as such it is open to the radical orthodox critique that any account of reality which excludes God is nihilistic.

Needless to say, I think this understanding of Wittgenstein is deeply flawed, and misses the very point which Wittgenstein is trying to make. Firstly, Cunningham shows no evidence of having absorbed what Wittgenstein’s method is, for his attack on Wittgenstein is concerned purely with its suggested status as a philosophical system – note, a system, not a method. Secondly, given the amount of academic effort that has gone into understanding and explaining Wittgenstein’s point of view, you would expect some engagement with the arguments that Wittgenstein makes, or that some of the major interpreters make. Perhaps you might expect some alternative conception of how examples like my one with water could be construed. Instead we have an argument, based primarily on two secondary sources, which conveniently places Wittgenstein into the secular philosophical context which radical orthodoxy as a whole wishes to criticise. My claim is that Wittgenstein won’t fit into that context. Wittgenstein is not advancing a theory, he is teaching a method.

Now, my purpose here, as I’m sure you will be relieved to discover, is not to argue through the detail of whether Cunningham’s paper is right or wrong about Wittgenstein. What I would like to do is examine why the radical orthodox want to put Wittgenstein into an intellectual box, to place him as a ‘neo-Kantian’ and so on. The radical orthodox position is that theology evacuates metaphysics, that is, it completely absorbs metaphysics – philosophical speculation about existence – within the subject matter of theology. Milbank writes: “…the domain of metaphysics is not simply subordinate to, but completely evacuated by theology, for metaphysics refers its subject matter – ‘Being’ – wholesale to a first principle, God, which is the subject of another, higher, science, namely God’s own, only accessible to us via revelation.”

Two things are problematic here, from a Wittgensteinian point of view. Firstly, on Wittgenstein’s view metaphysics is a type of pathology. It is an intellectual game with language that satisfies a desire for the infinite, the illusion being that if we can fathom the limits of the world then we can see beyond them. If Wittgenstein’s view of language is correct then large parts of the Western intellectual tradition will fall into disuse. Any account of the world, from Plato’s theory of the forms onward, is, at best, a form of intellectual poetry – Wittgenstein once called them the noblest products of the human mind. But however wonderful metaphysical speculation might be, if Wittgenstein is correct, they are always ultimately nonsense.

Is there an overlap here? For the radical orthodox also dislike metaphysics. In fact, the two positions are as far apart as it is possible to be. For the radical orthodox metaphysics is illegitimate because it doesn’t talk about God. If it does, then it is theology, and that’s OK, because it can therefore be liturgically consummated, as Catherine Pickstock describes. Her project for the liturgical consummation of philosophy only makes sense if both philosophy and theology are operating on parallel lines. For the radical orthodox, theology and metaphysics are therefore the same sort of thing philosophically. But as such, for anyone who understands language in the way that Wittgenstein indicates, they are equally nonsense.

So am I arguing that Wittgenstein is claiming that all theology is nonsense? No, not really. His position is rather more subtle than that (and it is all this subtlety that Cunningham misses). For Wittgenstein it is always action which is primary - ‘In the beginning was the deed’ - and our language gains its sense from being embodied in certain practices. Consider the following passage: ‘Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things … are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’ Or consider this passage ‘I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless, that you have to change your life (or the direction of your life)...the point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you, you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription. But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction’; and finally ‘A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer...It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.’

What Wittgenstein is trying to do is to get us out of our heads, and back into our bodies. His position is therefore much more incarnational than the radical orthodox, paradoxically enough. As I understand it, religious language makes sense only within the context of the religious life as a whole. The life of worship, repentance and changing of life. The religious language, with associated teaching and pictures, is primary. Theology and doctrinal development is a secondary characteristic, which relates to the practise of religion rather in the same way that literary criticism relates to the writing of literature. And of course, in the history of our religion, that makes sense. The basic motifs of the faith were present after the resurrection, and it took some 300 years for the intellectual account of those motifs to catch up.

To try and summarise the difference as I see it, then, I would say that Wittgenstein is aware that some of the most important things about life cannot be put into words, that there is a very important element of mysticism (in the sense of ineffable meaning) in his viewpoint. That side of life, which for Wittgenstein included religion, aesthetics and ethics, does not and cannot proceed from an intellectual basis. It’s much more important than that. However, that element of mysticism, of real religious experience, is what is missing in the radical orthodox. For the radical orthodox the intellectual battle is the heart of things. The primary channel for accessing God is through the intellect; if your understanding is correct, then you will see God. And in putting across this point of view the radical orthodox are aggressively academic, in ways that James has described. This, ultimately, is why they misconstrue Wittgenstein – Wittgenstein does not place the intellect at the centre of what it means to be human, and in a very real sense that is the hallmark of his approach – and to then try and understand him through the lens of intellectual primacy is to be led into the sort of mistakes that Cunningham makes.

Yet the academic method as presently practised in this country, the whole critical apparatus of citation and footnotes and the slow building up of evidence and argument, is the epitome of intellectual primacy, or secular reason as Milbank describes it. It is based upon a distancing of the writer from the concerns being discussed. It is, ultimately, an abstraction. To put it in more classical terms, the academic method is scientia, reason. Whereas faith is about sapientia, wisdom. The two are different, and theology is first and most importantly about the latter. It is something of an irony that the radical orthodox are proclaiming the end of secular reason while still being subservient to its forms.

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