Saturday, October 21, 2006

Wittgenstein, Plato and Pickstock: the sense of religious language

(I wrote this whilst at Westcott, researching for a PhD at Cambridge; the writing of it led directly to the decision to abandon the PhD and concentrate on spiritual formation. If you follow the argument, you will understand why…)

1. In her book ‘After Writing’ [After Writing, Catherine Pickstock, Blackwell, 1998] Catherine Pickstock advances the thesis that ‘liturgical language is the only language that makes sense’ and that ‘the event of transubstantiation in the Eucharist is the condition of possibility for all human meaning’. In this essay I intend to show 1) that the Scotist metaphysics identiifed by Pickstock are the subject of an implicit critique by Wittgenstein; 2) that the wider philosophy developed by Wittgenstein as a result offers considerable support to the principal conclusions of Pickstock’s thesis; and 3) that there are significant differences between the understanding of Socrates offered by Wittgenstein and Pickstock, and that these differences point up a fundamental disagreement over the place of philosophy within theology which has practical consequences.

The Argument of After Writing
2. Pickstock begins her thesis with an examination of the Phaedrus, a mid to late Platonic dialogue. The argument is conducted through an analysis and rejection of the Derridean interpretation of this work, ie Pickstock contends against Derrida that Plato assumed that language was primarily doxological in character, ‘ultimately concerned with praise of the divine’ (p37). According to this view, Socrates ‘attacks sophistry not on the grounds of its linguistic mediation of truth, but because of its undoxological motivation’ (p37). Sophism is therefore identified with the ‘practices of demythologisers... who are concerned only with superficial matters rather than substantive content’ (p5). Through Part 1 of the book Pickstock traces a line of descent from this sophistry through to modern secularism, showing how, for example, the Cartesian elevation of rationality, with all its consequences, owes its origin to ‘the beginnings of a technocratic, manipulative, dogmatically rationalist, anti-erotic, anti-corporeal and homogenising society undergirded by secularity and pure immanence’ (p48), against which Socrates contended. According to Pickstock it is this move away from a transcendent understanding of language which prepares the way for secular modernism: ‘“sophistic” immanentism is the ultimate foundation of these illusions’ (p49). Part 2 of Pickstock’s work is concerned with a detailed analysis of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Liturgy, and is concerned to show how it expresses this non-sophistic understanding of reality, such that ‘The words of Consecration “This is my body” therefore, far from being problematic in their meaning, are the only words which certainly have meaning, and lend this meaning to all other words’ (p263, original emphasis). However, in between the two parts of the thesis is a ‘Transition’, which is a key part of the whole thesis, and it is with this that I would like to begin my analysis.

3. According to Pickstock the liturgical polity was sundered from within by an excess piety, principally through the work of Duns Scotus (d. 1308). I would like to pick out the following characteristics of Scotist thought, as presented by Pickstock:
a) the primacy of rationality: ‘And since the “possible”, as distinct from the “actual” is by definition only realised in thought, or in some prior or virtual realm, the place given to the “possible” by Scotus inaugurates the logical basis for privileging epistemology over ontology, and the rational over the actual, thereby opening the way for modern metaphysics’ (p127);
b) the elevation of divine sovereignty: ‘The supremacy of God’s will, according to Duns Scotus, is such that it can realise all possibilities, even those which contradict the actual necessities of the particular created order in which we live’ (p132); and
c) the consequent change in our understanding of the miraculous: ‘Scotus’ departure from analogia entis, which distances God from the world, precipitates a necessary preparedness to undergo at any moment a radically discontinuous and arbitrary alteration caused by God, whose presence in the world is now viewed more ontically, in terms of a willingness to intervene. The miraculous is no longer to be found in the analogical resemblances of the physical order, but in the possible radical discontinuities of that order’ (p131-2).
It is my contention that these elements of Scotist thought are implicitly criticised by Wittgenstein. I will begin by considering his Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough [Included in Philosophical Occasions, ed Klagge and Norman, Hackett, 1993, pp119-155].

Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’
4. Wittgenstein wrote his Remarks in two periods, the first around 1931, the second after 1948. These remarks have been described as one of the two ‘most radically instructive sources for the critical comprehension of ritual’[Brian Clack, review of Cyril Barrett, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief, Religious Studies 1993, p577, quoting Rodney Needham. I owe my analysis here to Dr Clack, whose book Wittgenstein and Magic is forthcoming in 1998.], and they are certainly the most extensive comments that Wittgenstein compiled on religious belief.

5. Frazer’s account of ritual in the Golden Bough was concerned to demonstrate an evolution in human consciousness from a state of magical belief, through a state of religious belief, to a final enlightened state of scientific belief. Wittgenstein took great exception to this, principally because it made religious beliefs look like an error, and thus portrayed religion as something that was essentially rational in character. He wrote ‘I believe that the attempt to explain is already therefore wrong’, and later, ‘No opinion serves as the foundation for a religious symbol. And only an opinion can involve an error’ (p120-1). On Wittgenstein’s account, people undertake ritual actions in order to appease something like a religious instinct. He invites us to consider other examples of similar actions: ‘Kissing the picture of one’s beloved. That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at satisfaction and achieves it. Or rather, it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied’ (p123). For Wittgenstein, religious expression is something that is wholly natural, ‘One could almost say that man is a ceremonial also perform actions which bear a characteristic peculiar to themselves, and these actions could be called ritualistic actions... the characteristic feature of a ritualistic action is not at all a view, an opinion’ (p129).

6. Wittgenstein’s understanding of Christianity is of a piece with this. In 1937 [Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blackwell, 1980, pp28&32.] he wrote ‘The historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this: not, however, because it concerns “universal truths of reason”! Rather because historical proof (the historical proof game) is irrelevant to belief...A believer’s relation to these narratives is neither the relation to historical truth (probability) not yet that to a theory consisting of “truths of reason”’. Most clearly, towards the end of his life [In 1950; Culture and Value p85.], he wrote ‘A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their “belief” an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.’ It seems clear then, that for Wittgenstein, any form of Scotist prioritisation of the rational is misconceived: religious belief is not a consequence of ratiocination.

7. A key notion used by Wittgenstein when discussing these issues is ‘depth’. To return to his Remarks on Frazer, in particular the consideration of the Beltane fire festival, Wittgenstein wrote (p143) ‘Besides these similarities, what seems to be most striking is the dissimilarity of all these rites. It is a multiplicity of faces with common features which continually emerges here and there. And one would like to draw lines connecting these common ingredients. But then one part of our account would still be missing, namely that which brings this picture into connection with our own feelings and thoughts. This part gives the account its depth.’ Then, later, when considering the part of the ritual which involved a make believe thrusting of a man into the fire, ‘It is now clear that what gives this practice depth is its connection with the burning of a man’. The important thing about a ritual action, that which allows it to have the character of a ritual action, is this dimension of depth.

8. Before the remark on man as a ceremonial animal referred to above, Wittgenstein wrote ‘How could fire or the similarity of fire to the sun have failed to make an impression on the awakening mind of man? But perhaps not “Because he can’t explain it” (the foolish superstition of our time) - for will an explanation make it less impressive?... I don’t mean that just fire must make an impression on every one. Fire no more than any other phenomenon, and one thing will impress this person and another that. For no phenomenon is in itself particularly mysterious, but any of them can become so for us, and the characteristic feature of the awakening mind of man is precisely the fact that a phenomenon comes to have meaning for him.’ Thus for Wittgenstein, the explanation for ritual lies not in a mistaken hypothesis, which falsely elevates rationality, but in the way in which a rite can be perceived as ‘deep’, ie as something which provokes a sense of awe and connectedness. Or, as Fergus Kerr has put it, ‘What it is that is deep, about religious rituals as well as magic, is evidently that they bring us into significant relationship with these earthly mundane phenomena.’ [In ‘Wittgenstein’s Kink’, p257 of Beyond Secular Reason, ed Philip Blond, Blackwell, 1997]

9. This leads to a different understanding of the nature of miracles. Consider his remarks on the practice of sun worship; whereas on Frazer’s account the rite is a supposedly magical process, undertaken in order to summon the sun, Wittgenstein simply points out that ‘toward morning, when the sun is about to rise, rites of daybreak are celebrated by the people, but not during the night, when they simply burn lamps’ (p137). Or consider these remarks [Culture and Value, p56], on the ‘miracles of nature’: ‘One might say: art shows us the miracles of nature. It is based on the concept of the miracles of nature. (The blossom, just opening out. What is marvellous about it?) We say: “Just look at it opening out”.’ It seems clear that Wittgenstein’s conception of miracles was explicitly not one of ‘divine intervention’, rather it concerned events within the natural process that provoked a sense of depth in the observer. This conception is most explicit in two further remarks, the first from his Lecture on Ethics given in 1929 [Lecture on Ethics, in Philosophical Occasions, ibid, p43.], the second from a reported conversation [Taken from Cyril Barrett, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief, Blackwell 1991, p202.]:
a) following a discussion of experiences such as wonderment at the existence of the world, and the experience of being absolutely safe, Wittgenstein considers ‘what in ordinary life would be called a miracle’, such as a person growing a lion’s head. Wittgenstein suggests that if this happened then people would send for doctors and have the situation investigated, ‘And where would the miracle have got to?’. He continues, ‘This shows that it is absurd to say “Science has proved that there are no miracles”. The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle’.
b) Wittgenstein is considering a report of a ‘faked miracle’, an account of a statue of Christ which bleeds. He comments ‘I have a statue which bleeds on such and such a day in the year. I have red ink etc etc. “You are a cheat but nevertheless the deity uses you. Red ink in a sense, but not red ink in a sense”.’ [Presumably the final clause is using the words ‘in a deeper sense’ - Cf remarks on p87 of Culture and Value.] Although this is something that is created by human endeavour it is still something that can provoke the ‘depth’ or sense of awe which Wittgenstein sees as essential to religious ritual and as underlying a correct understanding of miracles.

10. To conclude this section, then, the Scotist understanding of religion, particularly in respect of its prioritisation of the rational and its understanding of the miraculous, is the implicit subject of Wittgenstein’s critique of Frazer. I would now like to consider how this relates to Wittgenstein’s wider philosophical project, for as Fergus Kerr has argued, Wittgenstein’s philosophical method ‘originated in his objections to Frazer’s reductively rationalistic accounts of primitive religious practices.’ [In Wittgenstein’s Kink, p257.]

Wittgenstein’s understanding of philosophy
11. Wittgenstein at one point employs the analogy of a potato growing shoots if it is left in the dark. He considered that this was what happened in philosophy: philosophers were searching for the light, and just as the potato sent out tendrils which stopped as soon as they found light, so also philosophy built up great metaphysical works in an attempt to gain insight into how things were. What Wittgenstein wanted to do was to shed light on the potato to stop the tendrils from growing in the first place.

12. 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 to carefully depict the relationships between different concepts. 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. Thus Wittgenstein wrote: ‘Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.’(PI 124) The philosopher’s role, therefore, is essentially non-deductive; it is not concerned with offering proofs for particular positions, it is concerned with achieving clarity.

13. When philosophers ask how it is that we know that there is an external world, how we can be assured of the independent existence of other people and so on, this is evidence that the philosophers do not understand the words that they are using. In these examples, the philosopher’s questions appear to be grappling with profound truths, deep and important issues. (Cf PI 111) For Wittgenstein, however, these are not genuine questions, rather they are confusions felt as problems. The philosopher should be concerned with what sense it makes to say certain things, not whether something is true or false. What is needed is an overview of the language being used, the concepts employed, and once this is done then the questions cease to trouble us.

14. Why then is philosophy important? When describing language, Wittgenstein uses the analogy of an old city, which has small twists and byways in the medieval centre, and as you move out through the suburbs the roads become straighter and the houses more standardised. What philosophy must do is provide an accurate road map, which can be a reliable guide as you travel around the city. (What it cannot do is build houses).

15. Wittgenstein wrote ‘The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.’ (PI 119) I understand the first part of this to be like pointing out that, in the centre of the city, there isn’t in fact a mountain, there is a market square. We do not need a grand metaphysical structure to tell us about time (for example) we need to see how people live, to observe how language is sewn into the way that they behave.

16. The second part is the more interesting, and I understand it to mean that, if we are using the map and find that we crash, there is something wrong with the map. This is important because if we crash, we are forced to look up from the map and see what the state of play actually is (this can be related to his advice to most of his students not to study philosophy: it is more important to look around than to make maps - unless you were a genius at map making, like Wittgenstein).

17. The analogy can be developed further. In opposing the tendency to offer essentialist or scientific style explanations of phenomena, it is rather like map makers from the suburbs trying to say that the city centre is also built along long straight roads. When you use a suburban map, therefore, and bump your head, you realise that there is more to life than suburbia. I think that, in throwing us back from our mental maps and making us look at what actually takes place, what Wittgenstein is trying to do in the Investigations has the same motive as the Tractatus - to focus our attention on what is really important. To go back to the analogy, if we bump our heads in the town centre then it is probably because the road has diverged to go round a large obstacle - a cathedral, perhaps, or a football ground. Places that have importance in people’s lives. I think that what Wittgenstein is trying to do is to get us to focus on what really matters in our life. He once said ‘What is the importance of studying philosophy if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?’

18. Wittgenstein wrote that ‘Philosophy simply puts everything before us’ (PI 126), and also that philosophy ‘leaves everything as it is’ (PI 124). If we gain a clear view of what is at issue, and our problems are therefore dissolved (our minds cease to be troubled) then no new knowledge has been provided. It is not that we now know the truth, rather it is that we now have clear minds. Whatever it is that we knew before, we know now; the difference is that now our minds are content with that knowledge.

19. An important element in Wittgenstein’s thought is the notion of ‘family resemblance’. Consider games - board games, ball games, Olympic Games and so on. What is it that makes them all games? In fact there is no common element; rather there is a network of overlapping similarities which allow us to groups these activities together. What is important is that the notion of family resemblance provides a new analogy with which to categorise things, one that doesn’t try and reduce games to a single vital constituent, without which a game would cease to be a game. For Wittgenstein the ability to be a good philosopher depended upon the ability to think up good analogies or counter-examples (PI 122) which allow for a new way of seeing connections, or which provoked the observer to ‘change the aspect’ under which a phenomenon was seen.

20. One thing that Wittgenstein wishes to emphasise is the importance of the particular case. Wittgenstein is trying to resist the urge to give an overarching theory, an explanation of different phenomena. The urge to give explanations to cover every case is actually neurotic, and it is this urge to generalise with which Wittgenstein takes task. Thus in PI 11-14 there is the discussion of 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. Thus there can be no clear argument in the Investigations or else it could be summarised and generalised. The Investigations should be thought of as being an exercise book, or a form of therapy. If you work through the book then you will be cured of the tendency to generalise.

21. This gives an insight into something that Wittgenstein was very concerned with: the urge to find the essence of something, and possibly then to explain it. We should focus on the differences involved with different games (that we normally would accept are games) in order to avoid coming up with a new definition of what a game is that would actually exclude various forms. Rather than trying to look below the surface, we should simply observe the practice, and accept that the practices cannot be shoe-horned into a particular intellectual framework - our minds need to switch off. Wittgenstein felt that this urge was the result of the obsessive worship of science in our culture, and the desire to apply scientific methods to other fields.

22. The way that philosophers should work is to examine language, and to ensure that their ideas have a natural home in the way that people live. In any philosophical investigation, language has a pre-eminent role. For Wittgenstein many of our problems arise because we expect our language to be logical and clear, when in fact it is complex and opaque. We are misled by the grammar of particular concepts. For example, on the surface the following two sentences would appear to have the same grammar: ‘Birds flew by’; ‘Time flew by’. The first word in each sentence functions as a noun. For the first sentence, when we ask what the word ‘Birds’ means, we can point to an external reference and say ‘Those are birds’, and thus we can explain what the sentence refers to. But what of the second sentence?

23. A traditional philosophical 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 epitome of the ‘deep and meaningful question’ which a philosopher is meant to consider. For Wittgenstein, though, the question is nonsensical.

24. Wittgenstein would say, why do we assume that there must be something tangible 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 contingent 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. (PI 116)

25. What Wittgenstein does, therefore, is try and get us to examine what language actually is, and to try and forget for a moment our preconceptions, or our desires for what we want language to be (PI 131). Wittgenstein wants to release philosophers from the ‘mental cramp’ that comes when we try and ask insoluble questions like ‘What is time’. Hence he employs the examples of language games. In setting up the different language games, for example at the beginning of the Investigations, Wittgenstein is attempting to raise our awareness of what language actually does in different situations.

26. It should now be clear in what way Wittgenstein’s work can be seen as offering a support for Pickstock’s thesis. Where Pickstock claims that it is the event of the Eucharist which provides sense, because it is only in the liturgical context that the words have meaning, Wittgenstein would concur and say that it is in the practice of Christian life as lived - paradigmatically in the Eucharist - that a proper understanding of Christian language can be found. If Christian liturgy is the summation of what Christianity is about then in follows, for Wittgenstein as well as Pickstock, that (for Christians) ‘the liturgical words of consecration are the only words which have meaning, and lend this meaning to all other words’. [There is an issue here about Christianity and other faiths, which needs to be addressed. Pickstock’s thesis that outside the mass there can be no meaning can be understood as saying 1) the mass exemplifies the deepest meaning of Christianity, but also 2) non-Christian liturgy is meaningless. The latter is a metaphysical thesis in so far as it claims that meaningis restricted to Christian language. However, an argument could be made for the latter in post-Wittgensteinian terms, along the lines that Christian liturgy is ‘deeper’, ie it allows for more human integrity, but unfortunately there is not space to do so here.] However, the extent of the overlap can be overstated and I want to now examine the areas of disagreement between the two approaches, and what the implications of this might be.

Wittgenstein’s critique of Socrates
27. For Wittgenstein the source of the traditional approach to philosophy was Socrates [Wittgenstein didn’t distinguish between Plato and Socrates (nor do I in this essay); he sometimes called the source of confusion ‘Plato’s method’.]. He once said to his friend Drury [Quoted in The Danger of Words, M O’C Drury, Thoemmes Press, 1996, p115.], ‘It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn’t satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.’ Or consider these remarks, the first made in 1931, the second in 1945: ‘Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?’; ‘Socrates keeps reducing the Sophist to silence, - but does he have right on his side when he does this? Well it is true that the Sophist does not know what he thinks he knows; but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can’t be a case of “You see! you don’t know it!” - nor yet, triumphantly, of “So none of us knows anything”.’

28. I expect that Wittgenstein had in mind a passage such as this one, from Socrates’ first speech in the Phaedrus: ‘in every discussion there is only one way of beginning if one is to come to a sound conclusion, and that is to know what one is discussing... Let us then begin by agreeing upon a definition’. In the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates restates this: ‘a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with; he must be able to define it.’

29. For Wittgenstein it is this emphasis upon definability in words which is the source of all our metaphysical illusions. Whereas for Pickstock Socrates was a doughty fighter on behalf of a doxological account of language, for Wittgenstein Socrates was the source of all our metaphysical troubles, and that, contrary to Pickstock’s account, the source of (for example) Descartes’ ‘clear and distinct ideas’ lies much deeper than Duns Scotus, ‘they lie as deep in us as the forms of our language’. It seems clear that, as Baker and Hacker put it in their commentary on the Investigations [GP Baker and PMS Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Understanding, Blackwell, 1997, p350], ‘Wittgenstein noted that some of the deep distortions of meaning, explanation and understanding originate with Plato’.

30. As a consequence one can take issue with Pickstock’s claim that Scotus’ thought ‘permitted the return of a spatialized sophistic outlook which Socrates might appear to have banished forever.’ Instead I would argue that it is precisely the reintroduction of Platonic philosophy to Medieval Europe in the 12th century that inspired and enabled Scotus to develop his philosophical system (this would also make more sense of other historical events, such as the controversies over the Creed in the Patristic period - why expend so much time unless the definition was vital? - and the understanding of the Koran in the Muslim world). Both Plato and Scotus are developing metaphysical systems. Consider this remark of Wittgenstein’s from 1931: ‘People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say that don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’ ‘true’ ‘false’ ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space etc etc, people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding’ they believe of course that they can see beyond these’.

31. Rather like the potato shoots searching for the light the metaphysical systems are seeking to appease a thirst for depth - the ‘immortal longings’ that Kerr describes in his recent book. It is in this sense that metaphysics is a kind of magic, for the metaphysical systems are the intellectual equivalent of the rites considered by Frazer - they can provoke a sense of awe and reverence. On Wittgenstein’s analysis this is something that is inevitable given the structure of our language. Accordingly, ‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language’; as para 111 of the Investigations puts it ‘The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language - Let us ask ourselves, why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (and that is what the depth of philosophy is).’ I would thus argue that any Platonic metaphysical system is inherently flawed, and that Scotus was simply ‘bewitched’ by the reintroduction of the Greek perspective. It is thus not the case that ‘Scotus inaugurated a metaphysics independent of theology’ [John Milbank, The Word Made Strange, Blackwell, 1996, p45] for this tendency was implicit in Platonism from the very beginning.

32. We are left to consider the question of how far theology can be reconciled with philosophy, and what the relationship between the two should be. Fergus Kerr has written that ‘The history of theology might even be written in terms of periodic struggles with the metaphysical inheritance’ [Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, Blackwell, 1986, p187.] and it does seem as if there is something intrinsic to metaphysical endeavour which is inimical to the practice of theology, certainly on a post-Wittgensteinian account of metaphysics. For on Wittgenstein’s account metaphysics is the expression of the desire for the transcendent, a natural theology: in theological terms it is a desire to attain the divine from human efforts. In this way, all such metaphysical systems are idolatrous, for all such natural theology must be subordinate to that derived from the revelation in Christ [NBThis is not the same as the critique of metaphysics offered by John Milbank - ‘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’ (The Word made Strange, p45)].

33. This is where the deepest disagreements between the Wittgensteinian approach and that of Pickstock are to be found. Pickstock’s argument that only liturgical language has meaning is prefigured by her contention that Socrates accepted an understanding of language as primarily doxological. If my understanding of Wittgenstein is correct, however, there is a contradiction between this understanding of Socrates and the main contention of her thesis, for the metaphysical project that she denounces in Scotus is bound up in our language and created when we are seduced by the metaphysical impulse (and that was what Socrates and Plato succumbed to); as Kerr puts it ‘our way of talking easily generates Platonism’ [Wittgenstein’s Kink, p248]. The argument ultimately concerns the nature of language and how far it can express religious truth. For Wittgenstein ‘the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life’ [Culture and Value, p85] and I think that this is wholly in tune with Pickstock’s desire for a ‘revolutionary reinvention of language and practice which would challenge the structures of our modern world’ (p171), particularly given Wittgenstein’s comment that he would by no means prefer a continuation of his work to a change in the way people live which would make all these questions superfluous.’

34. 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 (written in 1937): ‘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 (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’

35. Wittgenstein is always concerned to emphasise the practical importance of a religious belief. He distinguishes between the character of religious beliefs and other beliefs: ‘Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe through thick and thin, which you can do only as a result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.’

36. A religious belief is not analogous to a belief about a matter of historical fact, or scientific theories. It is one which makes a difference in terms of how you live your life and can only be understood in such contexts ‘it strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it’s belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life. It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation.’

37. There are also his remarks that ‘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’ [Culture and Value, p53]; and ‘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.’

38. This element of Wittgenstein’s thought is one that is continuous throughout his life, and is normally overshadowed by the contrast between the metaphysics of the Tractatus and the non-metaphysics of the Investigations. He once said to Drury that all his fundamental ideas came to him early in life, and his fundamental concerns were always ethical and religious in character. Although he certainly wasn’t an orthodox Christian - he couldn’t bring himself to believe the sorts of things that Christians believed - I would claim that Wittgenstein had a deeply mystical sensibility, and that this was why he ‘always looked at things from a religious point of view’. As Norman Malcolm put it, ‘it is surely right to say that Wittgenstein’s mature life was strongly marked by religious thought and feeling’ [Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein: a Religious Point of View?, Routledge, 1993, p21.]. Consider his remarks concerning the Tractatus when he was seeking a publisher: ‘The point of the book is work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I’m convinced that, strictly speaking it can ONLY be delimited in this way.’

39. Similarly in his lecture on ethics in 1929 (when he was given carte blanche to discuss whatever he wished and chose ethics because he wanted to talk about something which had general importance) he argues ‘not only can no description that I can think of therefore do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but...I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the grounds of its significance. That is to say: I see clearly now that these nonsensical expressions [the Tractatus] were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was of their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world, that is to say, beyond significant language. My whole tendency, and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk ethics or religion was to run against the boundaries of language.’

40. This concern remains in the Investigations: ‘The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.’ (PI para 119)

41. I would suggest that there is still a residual metaphysical ambition in the argument of After Writing. Pickstock’s argument is that ‘only a realistic construal of the event of the Eucharist allows us to ground a view of language which does not evacuate the body, and does not give way to necrophilia’ - as such she gives the view of language a role in grounding the rejection of necrophilia, and this is to repeat the metaphysical illusions of Platonism, whereby language on its own can achieve religious meaning. For Pickstock, ‘Plato will already have anticipated or hinted at’ [After Writing, p270] the answers that Christianity can offer, and this is why liturgy ‘consummates’ philosophy, for it brings it to completion. For Wittgenstein, however, it is not that liturgy consummates philosophy, for philosophy is sterile and is not a fit partner for liturgy. The two operate in different spheres. I would contend, therefore, that at the heart of the argument of After Writing Christianity is subordinated to an intrinsically idolatrous Platonism.

42. This argument is emphatically NOT saying, however, that Wittgenstein’s critique of metaphysics should be accepted ‘because it makes a certain type of theology possible’ [Beyond Secular Reason, Introduction, p40]. Blond’s critique of Wittgenstein repeats a common misunderstanding - indeed a metaphysical misunderstanding - of Wittgenstein’s project, and one, moreover, that Kerr’s article in his volume was trying to overcome. For Wittgenstein philosophy was essentially non-substantive, it was not concerned to offer explanations, nor was it concerned to show ‘the nature of existence’ for these are metaphysical questions. As such they belong in the realm of theology, which is where the ‘really important’ questions are considered, and hence, if you accept Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy it doesn’t interfere with religious beliefs. Not because it makes theology possible or gives it a foundation, for those are metaphysical claims, but because it reduces philosophy to its proper sphere, which is the search for clarity in our understanding. For Wittgenstein ‘All that philosophy can do is destroy idols’ [Philosophical Occasions, p171]; it cannot say anything about God, and hence ‘If Christianity is the truth then all the philosophy that is written about it is false’ [Culture and Value p83]. It is therefore a serious misreading of Wittgenstein to say that ‘he repeats a metaphysical account of the physical in that he also actualises the ontological and transcendental occlusion of the possibility that God is to be seen in the visible world’ [Beyond Secular Reason, p41] for this analysis still assumes that it is possible to say something substantive about God in metaphysical terms.

43. In On Certainty, Wittgenstein writes: ‘The child learns to believe by a host of things, ie it learns to act according to those beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.’ When a child is taught the use of religious language the existence of God is not something which is rationally demonstrated, rather it is the precondition for the way of thinking and living being taught to the child. I would say that the awareness of God comes about gradually through being inducted into a form of life - ‘Light dawns gradually over the whole’.

44. For Wittgenstein ‘What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics’, and furthermore ‘Ethics, in so far as it springs form the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolutely valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense.’ It is always a mistake to try and think of theology as something that enables us to add to our store of knowledge because, on his analysis, religious truth (and what is theology if not the search for religious truth?) is ultimately something that must be shown. It is not a matter of cognitive knowledge, separate from life, but of a fully embodied existence - a life lived in all its fullness. It is not something that can (or needs to) be argued for or justified by argument; it can only be seen by ‘a change of aspect’, and that can only be provoked by a life.

45. After Wittgenstein, with Pickstock, liturgy must be seen as the locus of meaning. But the corollary of this, against Pickstock, is that we shouldn’t be ultimately concerned with establishing an orthodoxy, whether radical, neo- or otherwise. The Christian - whether a theologian or not - is called to orthopraxy, for it is only in living the life of love that our words will make sense.

Sam Norton
Westcott House
February 1998

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