Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Religion and Philosophy
Wittgenstein on Religion and Ethics
“…a philosophy which is going to be ethics and metaphysics in one, though they have previously been so falsely separated, like soul and body.” (Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation, 1818/1988)
Despite Wittgenstein’s mysticism and, indeed, his religiosity, he may also be thought to have had an ambivalent, or even a counter-productive (in terms of the cause of religion and perhaps ethics), attitude towards religion and ethics in his later period.
In his Tractatus he attempted to pave a way for religious, well, discourse. Though a little later he said:
“I think that it is definitely important to put an end to all the claptrap about ethics – whether intuitive knowledge exists, whether values exist, whether the good is definable” (1929).
So, unlike religious theologians and possibly Christian ethicists, Wittgenstein appears to have believed, at this time (the 1920s and early 30s), that we shouldn't even discuss - not in an intellectual, philosophical or “theoretical” manner anyway - the issues of religion and ethics. Such discussions would pollute and defile these subjects. This attitude, it could be supposed, puts Wittgenstein more in the mystical rather than the religious camp. However, Wittgenstein of course conceded that religious and non-religious ethicists, and straight religious thinkers for that matter, are saying something with their words. That is, when we discover that a sentence “has no means of verification”, it didn't follow, at least for Wittgenstein in the later 1920s and early 1930s, that there is nothing to discover or understand in that sentence. The very process of not finding an (empirical?) verification means that we could still understand something interesting about the sentence. Those people who use such sentences aren't, as the logical positivists argued, indulging in “meaningless metaphysics” or simply talking “nonsense”.
Although this kind of anti-positivism is and always has been to a great extent commonplace and even de rigueur in continental philosophy, it will be interesting to see attitudes that were expressed during Wittgenstein’s own day, and also sometimes in a quasi-Wittgensteinian manner, that weren't actually part of the analytic or Wittgensteinian tradition.
For example, Martin Buber (who's just been mentioned) thought that logical positivism attempted to relegate ethics, religion and poetry to the exclusive realm of human emotion. And within this realm there is, according to the logical positivists, no “true knowledge”. Buber also thought that such an attitude essentially meant that for logical positivists there is no “present reality” until that reality has “become past”. Only then, Buber claimed the positivists believed, could the “nature of reality” be circumscribed by our logical and conceptual tools (1990).
Wittgenstein, in this respect as well, was also articulating a position that had existed previously (or was at least roughly contemporaneous with the Tractatus). Rosenzweig, again, talked in terms of the “truth of the philosophers” and the truth that can indeed be found in other domains. He said that philosophical truth “could only know itself”. However, he was also concerned with truth for someone.
“[Truth] leads over those [scientific, rational] truths for which a man is willing to pay, on to those that he cannot verify save at the cost of his life…” (1925)
Despite this kind of anti-verificationism, Wittgenstein himself also thought, and this mustn't be forgotten, that if people did talk about, say, “intuitive knowledge”, or “the real existence of values”, or whether or not “the good is definable”, then they had clearly fallen prey to either the philosophical or the scientific language game (or both). The early late period, as it were, Wittgenstein said that
“the essence of the good has nothing to do with facts and hence cannot be explained by any proposition”. (Wittgenstein, 1930)
Wittgenstein, unlike Buber and Rosenzweig above (and Heidegger below), believed that philosophy should be silent on matters of religion, spirituality, ethics and aesthetics. He wasn’t, however, very silent on these issues in his private life. Though this may have simply been the case because he talked about them qua non-philosopher, rather than qua philosopher.
Heidegger’s General Religious Attitude
“The primary existential structure of Dasein is its Being-in-the-world, its holistic unity that includes not independent objects (as in Husserl’s notion of intentionality) but rather the whole world, ‘the worldhood of the world’. It is a world that cannot be ‘bracketed’, a world that is not so much there ‘for us’ as one from which we cannot distinguish ourselves (Heidegger sometimes writes dramatically of our ‘being thrown’ into the world). The idea of a world known by us which is distinct from the one in which we act…is unintelligible, and another primary structure of Dasein, consequently, is care, a generalised notion of ‘concern’ which refers to the necessity of our engagement in the world.” (Continental Philosophy Since 1750: the Rise and Fall of the Self, Solomon, pg. 162)
Although Heidegger, like Wittgenstein, had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards religion and theology (at least towards Christianity), he nevertheless used language that resonated with both direct and indirect religiosity, spirituality and mysticism. In Being and Time, 1926, for example, he has this to say about the world at that time:
“We have said that the world is darkening…the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the standardization of man, the pre-eminence of the mediocre” (Heidegger, 1959 trans).
It could be said, however, that there are certain non-Christian, or even unchristian, phrases in the passage that I've just quoted.
For example, the “standardization of man” can be seen as more of an existentialist than a Christian utterance on Heidegger’s part. Despite that, I can see the possibility of certain interpretations of that passage that would square with a Christian vision (or at least certain existentialist Christian visions). Also, and in a similar vein, his reference to the “pre-eminence of the mediocre” is even more Nietzschean than it is existentialist. Again, perhaps this too could be seen to square with certain Christian viewpoints (of which, of course, there are possibly enough to encompass any ostensibly non-Christian position). In terms of his reference to the “destruction of the earth”, this parallels Wittgenstein’s own vision, mentioned earlier, of a world made safe for war by science and the flight from God.
Despite the no doubt deep and profound though definitely aggressive controversies that surround Heidegger’s penchant for National Socialism, all I can say is that I find just as many Heideggerian correlations with Nazism than I do with the Christianity I've just mentioned. Indeed, despite Derrida’s (amongst others) protestations and defences, I do see similarities between, say, Heidegger’s “attacks on realism” and Nazism. And there are other connections between Heidegger and Nazism that are worth commenting upon for the simple reason that they all also have a bearing on Heidegger’s religious and mystical beliefs and attitudes.
These shared similarities with Nazism include: an interest in mysticism, an interest in the early medieval period (shared with, amongst others, the English Catholic fascists of the early 20th century), anti-intellectualism (or intellectual anti-intellectualism, as in the case of Heidegger and, well, Joseph Goebels), a distaste for modern civilisation science and technology (which can quite easily go alongside the use of technology, as was the case with the Nazis and is the case with our Islamic fundamentalists), anti-Enlightenment attitudes, “thinking with the blood”, an idealisation of peasant life, an ambivalent attitude towards Catholicism (to less of an extent, towards Protestantism), a connection with Nietzscheanism (positive in the Nazi case, less positive in Heidegger’s), and so on.⁹
It must be said, there were anti-Semitic aspects to Wittgenstein’s personality (despite the fact that he was, of course, Jewish “by blood”). This too bears on the issues of this essay. For example, Wittgenstein had a traditional Austro-German distaste for what had been called “pernicious Jewish theological rationalism”.
So to get back to Heidegger’s stance on religion and theology. It can be said that Heidegger never really escaped from theology (and metaphysics). The philosopher and pragmatist Sydney Hook got it just right when he referred to Being and Time:
“…there is a mystical doctrine of creative emanation at the bottom of Heidegger’s thought…Heidegger is really asking theological questions.” (1930)
Heidegger had a love-hate relationship with metaphysics, religion/theology and philosophy generally. He couldn’t decide whether to be a part of one - or all - of these traditions, or to live apart from one – or all – of them. Indeed perhaps he wanted to be both a part of and apart from these traditions at one and the same time:
“…what Heidegger really wanted to do was to find a way of getting himself out of from under theology while still keeping in touch with what theology…had been about…Like Plato and Plotinus before him, he wanted to get away from the gods and the religion of the times to something ‘behind’ them. So, although in one sense he is indeed still asking theological questions, in another sense he is trying to find better questions that will replace theological (or, as he was later to say, ‘metaphysical’) questions.” (Rorty, 1983)
This love-hate relationship was also expressed, in a way, by Heidegger himself when he wrote that “we are too late for the gods, and too early for Being”.
That is, “we are too late for the gods” because theology and metaphysics itself can no longer have any purchase on the European mind. Though, unfortunately, most of us are also “too early for Being”. That is, too early for Heidegger’s very own “onto-theology” (or “ontic-theology”).
Early Heidegger as Mystic and His Spiritual Dasein
“This is a God to whom man can neither pray nor offer sacrifice [i.e., the “God of the philosophers”]. Before the causa sui man cannot fall on his knees in awe, nor can he sing and dance before this God.” (Identität und Differenz, Heidegger, 1957)
Master Eckhart (1260 – c. 1327), who started out as a Dominican monk, is generally regarded as the greatest representative of German mysticism. The mystic had a strong effect on the young Heidegger (along with Duns Scotus). More particularly, it was Eckhart’s concept of not knowing anything (Eckhart, in Erich Fromm, 1976) that initially inspired Heidegger. Eckhart himself once wrote:
“…we say that a man ought to be empty of his own knowledge, as he was when he did not exist…” (1976 trans)
The early Heidegger opposed what he took to be traditional metaphysics with a “meditative” alternative. At times he called this meditative alternative simply “thinking” or “letting be”, a term he adopted from Meister Eckhart. Heidegger also used the German word Gelassenheit. This is a term for thinking “without why”. A way of thinking that placed restraints on “the demands of the will”. According to Heidegger at that time, meditative thinking “lets things” show themselves, rather than be shown or circumscribed by the inquiring mind.
The mystic Angelus Silesius also influenced him at this time. It's Silesius’s “rose” that, according to Heidegger, lives “without reason” or “without why”. (It's interesting to note here that the writings Heidegger composed under the influence of Silesius and Meister Eckhart have often been compared to texts in certain Buddhist traditions.)
Heidegger’s most important concept, or, perhaps I should say, notion (according to Heidegger, it's not a concept), Dasein, has itself a mystical or spiritual dimension. That is, the Being of Dasein is “to be” (zu sein) “there” (da) in the world. In a basic sense, this appears to stress the essentially non-rational or non-intellectual nature of Dasein. That is, to be rather than to think or to do or to have. (We may as well note here that the later Heidegger was also to put the “question of Being” forward as the “spiritualising” part of the National Socialist revolution.) Heidegger believed that his notion of Dasein is not a notion of knowing. Instead Dasein is always in the background each time we know, acquire knowledge and contemplate the world.
Heidegger’s most important notion, or anti-concept, that of Dasein, has been explained and described, by Caputo, in essentially religious terms. Caputo writes: “In a manner strongly reminiscent of Augustinian and Lutheran spirituality, Heidegger describes Dasein…” (Caputo, 1998). Yet, in a strange way, Heidegger’s notion of Dasein is also his most “anthropocentric” (to use a term often applied to the late Wittgenstein) notion. That is, it captured, to use Robert Brandon’s words again, “the ontology of the social”. *
There is no reason to believe that ontological “anthropocentrism” and spiritual or religious Heideggerian “concern” can’t be found within the same philosophical package. Think here of one of Heidegger’s variations on Dasein: “Dasein ist Mitsein” (“To exist is to be together with others”).
Wittgenstein too tried to square his “anthropocentrism” with an essentially religious or mystical attitude. That is, even though there is a strong Hebraic religious element in his work, this element still seeks to return us to the “common world”.
On the other hand, we must also remember the other Wittgenstein. This Wittgenstein tells us that we need to control ourselves, to have a critical attitude towards metaphysics, to indulge in philosophical therapy instead of old-style metaphysics, and to accept that the human world is really the only world.
Back to Heidegger.
The German philosopher was also deeply influenced by the Lutheran religion (despite the fact that he was a Catholic who lived in Catholic Bavaria) and medieval Catholic philosophy (particularly Duns Scotus).
Perhaps it's the case that Heidegger was more religiously literate, at least in terms of the history of Christian philosophy and theology, than Wittgenstein. Indeed Wittgenstein, a one-time denizen of Catholic Vienna, doesn't seem to offer us much of his religious views and knowledge, at least not in any direct sense. This isn't surprising considering his views on the relation between philosophy and religion (as I've already commented upon). He did, however, have quite a lot to say in his private life (as I’ve also said). With Heidegger, on the other hand, his ecclesiastical knowledge is obvious both within and outside his strictly philosophical work.
The New Mysterians Against Late Wittgenstein’s Anthropocentrism
“.... there are desires and sentiments prior to reason that it is not appropriate for reason to evaluate...” (Nagel, The Last Word, 1997)
David Pears and Tom Nagel (amongst many others) have accused Wittgenstein of being an “anthropocentric philosopher”. This is very ironic and strange if one considers - even for just a moment - Wittgenstein’s mystical tendencies, his profound distaste for scientific dominance, and, say, his championship of religious language games. It seems, however, that Pears and Nagel have simply never considered the possibility that Wittgenstein might well have quite easily squared his “anthropocentrism” with his religious or mystical beliefs (as Heidegger did).
Perhaps they should also consider the possibility that Wittgenstein might equally have often returned from esoteric theory to mundane practice; and also possibly from heavenly ecstasies to everyday life. Indeed the mystical Eckhart believed that such coming and going between the “heavenly sublime” and the earthly ridiculous is a good example of his own “last and highest parting”.
In Wittgenstein’s case at least, religious belief and critical thought both provided an escape from the masterful objectivism and objectualism that, according to both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, had so dominated the Western philosophical tradition. Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs and his critical thoughts actually gained him freedom by letting him view theory only as an instrumental tool and not as a dogmatic weapon. And yet Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs and critical thought were indeed both, in their own senses, deeply “anthropocentric”.
The fact is that Wittgenstein’s prime motive throughout his philosophical career was religious and ethical. Indeed it might well have been the case that Wittgenstein wanted to bring us back to Jewishness (despite his distaste for “rationalist Jewish theology”) and away from Gnostic intellectualism and metaphysical grandeur. That is, he wanted us also to return to a “common life” in which the practical and the ethical were both of primary importance.
It is even stranger if one reads the following Wittgenstein-like passage from the anti-Wittgensteinian philosopher mentioned and quoted above. That is, Tom Nagel himself writes:
“It may be true that some philosophical problems have no solution. I suspect that this is true of the deepest and oldest of them. They show us the limits of our understanding.” (1979)
Elsewhere Nagel wrote that Wittgensteinians must
“acknowledge that all thought is an illusion…the Wittgensteinian attack on transcendent thought depends on a position so radical that it also undermines the weaker transcendent pretensions of even the least philosophical of thoughts.” (Nagel, 1986)
Of course people may find it strange that I call the first passage above “Wittgenstein-like”. That is, late Wittgenstein might not have said, it may be argued, that “some philosophical problems have no solution”. He might instead have said that some philosophical problems are in fact non-problems. However, he might have seen them as non-problems precisely because he also saw them as insoluble (perhaps in principle). And, of course, Wittgenstein also, like Nagel, was interested “in the limits of our understanding” (especially, though not exclusively, in the Tractatus).
Despite that, I suspect that these “limits” would be seen by Nagel as limits imposed on us by the a priori nature of the mind and the necessary factors of the non-human world. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, might have accepted limits; though these limits are contingent limits imposed (or not, in fact, imposed, if they are self-created) on us by our linguistic practices and our contingent concepts.
The New Mysterians (including Colin McGinn) would probably not accept Wittgenstein’s view on the human nature of our human limitations; though they may well accept Nagel’s. There are of course many philosophers who are not Mysterians (or even anti-Wittgensteinians); though who nevertheless are deeply troubled by late Wittgenstein’s radical proposals and positions.¹º