Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Religion, Language Games and Philosophy
Anti-Science and Pro Religion
“...the total world-view of modern man [has] let itself be determined by the positive sciences...[which has resulted in] an indifferent turning-away from the questions which are decisive for a genuine humanity.” (Husserl, 1936)
Heidegger once talked in terms of the “flight of the gods” to refer to the ascendancy of scientific culture in 20th century Western society and the concomitant rise of the spirit of “instrumental rationality”. This position can be compared to Wittgenstein’s view that western civilisation had taken a flight from God. There is remarkably little difference between the two visions.
So Wittgenstein’s anti-scientism was also marked (as it was in Heidegger and Husserl’s talk of the scientific flight from “life-worlds”). But perhaps we could say here, for contrast at least, that there’s only one person who is more blinkered than a “scientistic philosopher” (if such there is): that is a strong anti-scientistic philosopher (of such there are many). Wittgenstein shares his anti-scientistic, rather than anti-scientific (as in Heidegger), trait with, amongst others, Nietzsche, Tom Nagel, Husserl, Colin McGinn, and many neo-Aristotelian/Thomist, and, of course, Wittgensteinian analytic philosophers as well as “realist” philosophers of other persuasions.
This science-phobia, at least of the Wittgenstein strand, spread it wings and flew out of the domain of Anglo-American analytic philosophy and into the world of literature. It can be seen in Iris Murdoch’s following words about the existentialists’ predicament:
“…the fearful solitude of the individual marooned upon a tiny island in the middle of the sea of scientific facts, and morality escaping from science only by a wild leap of will.” (Murdoch, 1971)
It may be incorrect to say here that Wittgenstein’s anti-scientistic attitude, unlike Heidegger’s, was apolitical and personal. According to Rush Rhees, Wittgenstein once told him that “Tyranny doesn’t make me feel indignant” (1935). We could clutch at straws here and say that this is perhaps because Wittgenstein thought that although tyrannies enslave the body, they nevertheless leave the soul free to do what it liked. He also once said to a friend: “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” And perhaps this was a good piece of Protestant theology on Wittgenstein’s part.
On the other hand, Heidegger was generally more suspicious of religion than Wittgenstein, at least on the surface (that last clause can be deemed an important point about Heidegger). Wittgenstein was much less concerned - again on the surface (that is, in his philosophical publications) - with theology and religion than Heidegger.
Heidegger also thought that religions should have a social aspect, which Wittgenstein certainly didn’t believe (at least during his Tractarian period).
So Heidegger’s view of religion generally, if not of theology and metaphysics, might not have been as uncritical as Wittgenstein’s. Indeed Heidegger once said, quoting from Nietzsche, that “Christianity is Platonism for the masses”. However, Wittgenstein did once say that “history had shown him” that “science and industry [have the power] to decide wars” (1946). He thought, like Heidegger, that mankind had turned away from God (or “the gods”) and put its trust in scientific “progress” instead.
Wittgenstein, in his Blue Book and also elsewhere and exactly like Heidegger, believed that the philosophical obsession with science could only lead us astray (in both philosophy and outside of philosophy).
It wasn't only the logical positivists who wanted to ask and answer questions in a scientific manner, someone like Husserl on the Continent, as Heidegger argued, did so too. So just as in certain instances Heidegger saw religion as the source of metaphysics (though he didn't always and necessarily think that this is bad thing), late Wittgenstein thought that our scientific yearnings were now the source of metaphysics (he did think that is a bad thing). In both cases, it was something beyond the rightful ken of philosophy that had a pull on the many philosophers both Heidegger and Wittgenstein criticised.
Religion, Metaphysics & Reason
“Man has the impulse to run up against the limits of language…This running-up-against Kierkegaard also recognised and even designated in a quite similar way (as running-up against Paradox). This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics.” (Wittgenstein’s remark about Heidegger, quoted in Hobson, 235).
Wittgenstein’s reference to Kierkegaard in the above will be worth elaborating upon here.
For example, this is Kierkegaard himself speaking about metaphysics and reason:
“[Do anti-religious philosophers] wish to monopolize the notion of ‘Reason’ for the philosophical project of epistemic self-sufficiency? Fine. We will call ourselves the Paradox…But when you say that the Paradox is in conflict with ‘Reason’ there is something of an…illusion. For this is but an echo of what the Paradox has been saying about its relation to that philosophical project since at least the time of the apostle Paul.” (1844/1985)
This Kierkegaardian and ambivalent attitude towards metaphysics and reason can be detected in late (perhaps also early) Wittgenstein.
On the one hand (as I’ve said) he saw that science usually initiates the metaphysical yearnings of many philosophers (i.e., in the early to middle 20th century). Though he also thought that there is indeed something about metaphysics that is deeply attractive (as did Heidegger). He might have also thought, as many philosophers did and still do, that there is something deep and even magical about metaphysics (think of Tom Nagel, Peter van Inwagen, Alvin Plantinga and Colin McGinn here). Though this deep and magical side of metaphysics is precisely what had turned philosophers, including Wittgenstein himself and Heidegger, against metaphysics. And here again we can see the influence of Kierkegaard (who was classed by the logical positivists as an “irrationalist”) on Wittgenstein.
Kierkegaard believed that traditional metaphysicians had deemphasised the differences between God and man. This “logocentric” position, to use a term from the Continent, also meant that precisely at the same time as the differences between God and ourselves were being blurred, in many ways the distinctions between the logos (as it appeared in metaphysics and rationality) and ourselves were in certain senses being emphasised. So the metaphysical tradition had fallen victim, according to Kierkegaard, to the “forgetfulness of Being” (to use Heidegger’s words). In so doing, reason and metaphysics were in essence deified just at the same time as “the subject”, according to Kierkegaard, was being slowly obliterated. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, recognised the deification of science instead, rather than that of reason or metaphysics. Or, as Rorty writes:
“…the source of realist…philosophy of science is the attempt…to make ‘Nature’ do duty for God – the attempt to make natural science a way of conforming to the will of a power not ourselves…” (Rorty, 1985)
Also, just as Wittgenstein undervalued or underemphasised the importance of speech and language in religion, so too he conceded (if only implicitly and at certain times) that language or words can't tell us what is true or profound in metaphysics. This is strange considering the supposed “anthropocentrism” of late Wittgenstein (which I'll comment upon in a later section). Indeed he did say that the “expression of metaphysics” is a “fundamentally religious feeling”. A feeling partly inspired by the Wittgensteinian urge to bang on the doors that are the “limits of language”. Perhaps, like Kant before him, he also wanted to transcend the boundaries of reason (despite Kant’s point that this would not give us knowledge) and also to take Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ (as, indeed, Wittgenstein said Heidegger did, see the passage I have quoted below).
Wittgenstein & Heidegger on Faith & Reason
“No one, it is true, will be able to boast that he knows that there is a God…No, my conviction [that God exists] is not logical, but moral certainty…it rests on subjective grounds.” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Method)⁷
Wittgenstein clearly thought that it was entirely counterproductive and against the very essence of religion/Christianity to try to justify one’s religious, spiritual or mystical beliefs with philosophical arguments. We simply don’t get the gist of Christianity, or religion generally, if we indulge in such pointless practices. Wittgenstein felt so strongly about this that he thought that Roman Catholicism placed too much weight on reason and argumentation (as Heidegger also did) when it comes to religious and theological belief.
“It is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic.” (1930)
This was partly the reason why Heidegger placed so much faith in Duns Scotus rather than Aquinas. The Scottish philosopher, after all, deemphasised the importance Aquinas and other philosopher theologians had put on reason in theological and religious debates, and instead reiterated the prime importance of unadulterated faith. ⁸
Again, like Kant before him, perhaps Wittgenstein implicitly thought that we must sweep away the grand pretensions of “reason” (a word, however, that Wittgenstein himself infrequently used) and make way for a pure and true faith and a spirituality untouched by philosophy and, even, by theology.
This Wittgensteinian position was not something that was always adhered to by Heidegger himself. He had a more ambivalent attitude to the relation between religion/spirituality and theology/philosophy. Wittgenstein, especially early Wittgenstein, thought that the two domains were completely separate. Heidegger, on the other hand, didn't. (At least not until his “late period” in which he tried to literally obliterate metaphysics and even theology from his new, more mystical brand of philosophy/theology or “onto-theology” or “ontic-theology”.)
Again like Kant before him, Wittgenstein was as equally against the rationalist Christian who thought he could prove the existence of God as he was against the atheist who believed that religion had no evidence at all on which to built belief. Aquinas thought that a proof of God’s existence is possible and had, in fact, already been achieved; whereas Heidegger’s Duns Scotus thought that it was impossible or, at the least, like Wittgenstein after him, that it was not needed and was in fact even anti-Christian. (Aquinas, however, also thought that it isn't needed; though only for uneducated Christians.) It's not just that proof is impossible for Wittgenstein; but that the idea of proof itself is suspect and essentially beside the point when it comes to religious beliefs and feelings.
So yet again Wittgenstein cohered with Kant: proof and rational belief isn't needed when it comes to religious belief and faith. (Kant, unlike Wittgenstein, provided dense and detailed arguments to back up this position.) Although Wittgenstein was not a Protestant, unlike the Pietist Kant before him, he too thought that science and philosophy (if not “reason”) needed to be swept away in order to make room for faith. Of course I'm not claiming here that Wittgenstein himself would have ever put it in quite the same way as Kant. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein did think that the mimicking of scientific and rationalist thought isn't the right way for a spiritual or religious man to behave (as Kant also believed). A Wittgensteinian, though not Wittgenstein himself, may however say that the same kind of evidential criteria (i.e., scientific criteria) isn't needed for religious belief; though, nevertheless, religions do have their own kinds of evidence. I would say, on the other hand, that the very notion of evidence simpliciter, in the context of religion and faith, was highly suspect for Wittgenstein, in the sense that “faith alone” is the thing that we truly need.
I said in the introduction that I would rarely mention Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. However, one can see a basically Tractarian position on the subjects we've just been discussing in works that either preceded or were contemporaneous with the Tractatus and that were also outside its tradition. Like Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, Franz Rosenzweig also thought that the world, man and God were essentially outside the ambit of reason (or empirical science and philosophy, in Wittgenstein’s case). Rosenzweig, therefore, spoke of the “meta-logical”, the “meta-ethical”, and the “meta-physical”. That is, Rosenzweig believed that the essential dimensions of the world, man and God were “hidden” and couldn't, therefore, be conquered by reason. And neither could they be victims of a naturalistic reduction or explanation in terms of other elements of the world (1921/1970). Despite that, Wittgenstein’s position on “the world”, though not on man and God, differs in some ways from Rosenzweig’s. That was because a positivistic, scientific and analytic environment surrounded Wittgenstein from his early years. This therefore influenced his views on “the world”; though not really his views on man, and certainly not on God. Rosenzweig, on the other hand, was a philosopher of religion who had not been particularly tainted by these traditions on the outside of German theology and philosophy of religion. He therefore applied his philosophical theories not just to God and man, but also to the world itself.
There are other parallels that can be made between Wittgenstein and other continental philosophers - indeed also with theologians and philosophers of religion.
Like Wittgenstein and Kant, Martin Buber (1878-1965) was suspicious of the “rationalist theological tradition”. He once said that he knew of no cogent proof of God’s existence. Not only that: he said that if such a thing existed, he would have rejected it.
Buber also said:
“I have no metaphysics on which to establish my faith…My philosophy…does not serve a series of revealed propositions…but an experienced, a perceived attitude that it has been established to make [it] communicable.” (Buber, 1967)
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.
Wittgenstein on Religious Language Games
“Observation is crucial for physical-object talk, the authority of sacred texts and holy persons for religious discourse, and the sincere asseveration of the subject for reports of experience. It is a piece of outrageous imperialism to suppose that any single requirement for justification applies across the board.” (William P. Alston, in his ‘Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World’, 1979)
Wittgenstein, almost from the very beginning, had a view of religion as “a form of life”, as well as a general distaste for theory (whether within or outside religion):
“Christianity is not…a theory…but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.” (Wittgenstein, 1937, from his personal notes)
This isn't surprising if one bears in mind the influence of Kierkegaard on Wittgenstein. Of course it's been quite well documented that the Danish philosopher had a strong influence on the Tractarian Wittgenstein. It's less well documented, on the other hand, that there are elements of Kierkegaard’s philosophy that may well have also influenced Wittgenstein’s later work. In respect to languages games only, Kierkegaard believed that the domains of existence were either in or actually were “forms of life”. These “language games” (Wittgenstein), or “modes of being-in-the-world” (Heidegger), were seen by Kierkegaard as coherent and interrelated sets of beliefs that were also embodied in various practices. However, perhaps not explicitly like the late Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard’s chief criterion - which he used to enable each language game to identify other language games - is how or if “forms of life” determine “the good life”.
Early on in his career, Wittgenstein also read William James’s popular Varieties of Religious Experience: He responded to this book by saying: “This book does me a lot of good.” It could be said that William James was a kind of proto language-game theorist. Indeed James was also well known for his idea of “the will to believe”. This doctrine, according to certain commentators at least, simply states that if religious belief works for you, or works for a community, then why not adopt it? It doesn’t matter if one’s beliefs are true or whether or not they correspond to anything outside the actual practice. What matters are the pragmatic effects of religious belief. In fact, according to James’s liberal pragmatism (unlike, say, C. S. Peirce’s), a belief is actually made true if and when it works. So it's easy to conclude that James’s views on religious practice may well have filtered down to the late Wittgenstein.
According to Wittgenstein’s own position on language games, there's a different “substratum” that belongs to each discourse of “enquiring and asserting” (1950). If Wittgenstein thought that this is the case, it naturally follows that religion, mysticism and art could all equally supply this “substratum”. Wittgenstein still claimed, however, that with these different “inherited backgrounds” could still “distinguish between [the] true and [the] false”.
Unlike his Tractarian view on religious language (see other sections), Wittgenstein’s later language-game position can be captured by the following “anthropocentric” passage from Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption:
Real language…is the language of the terrestrial world. (1924)
So Wittgenstein’s defence of religious language games or “forms of life”, which, in a sense, was already a part of his Tractarian vision (if less concretely stated), gave him a new way of defending the ineffable truths and experiences of religion and religious persons. However, whereas in the Tractatus it is a question of religious truths and beliefs being beyond science, philosophy, and all factual discourse (were therefore inexpressible or “unsayable”), in his later period Wittgenstein concentrated on the autonomous nature of various practices and discourses. This meant that within a religious language game religious things could indeed be expressed or said.
We can also see a very a quasi-Wittgensteinian attitude towards religious discourse in the work of the philosopher of religion Martin Buber (mentioned earlier). He, like late though not early Wittgenstein, thought that revelation and even religious knowledge itself is essentially a matter of linguistic communications and intersubjective contact rather than, on the model of epistemology and science, a detached observation of some kind of object (Buber, 1968).
It's often hard to fathom whether or not religious language games (and others) were seen by Wittgenstein to be somehow truly autonomous or also dependent on things outside the game. That is, is it all a question of conventions, rules, rule-following and nothing else? However, perhaps this Wittgensteinian so-called “anthropocentric” position on religious language games may be equally seen in the light of Luther’s “discovery” of “justification by faith”. That is, we may well simply be barking up the wrong tree by offering what may be called “realist” criticism of Wittgenstein’s (and James’) position on religious language games (as may be the case with Heidegger too).
Despite that, it may well be helpful to have a taster of one of these realist attacks on Wittgenstein.
Searle, for one, thinks that the majority of people within religious language games won't or couldn’t accept this non-realist attitude towards religious language games; though it might well have been the case for Wittgenstein himself:
“…whether or not there is a God listening to their prayer isn’t itself part of the language game. The reason people play the language game of religion is because they think there is something outside the language game that gives it a point.” (Searle, 1987)
Of course we could ask here, in a Searlian spirit, whether or not the very concept of truth has any real purchase in some or all of these disparate language games? That is, is it really the case that each language game, including the language games of art and religion, can formulate and use its own concept of truth? Or, alternatively, is it actually the same concept of truth, the one that we all know and love, though seen as placed against varying and sometimes unfamiliar contexts?
Searle’s point, then, is that Wittgenstein’s liberalism (if that’s what it is) towards religious language games might not, in actual fact, have been very well appreciated by the actual participants in these games. That is, if they had come to know that Wittgenstein thought that that such games are completely autonomous creations or constructions (and should therefore be treated in a non-realist manner), then they may not have accepted that their own particular religious language games are in fact Wittgensteinian practices.
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