Assessing the Investigation
Wittgenstein's Silence and Action Before Ethics and God

"Was St. Augustine mistaken then, when he called on God on every page of the Confessions? Well--one might say--if he was not mistaken, then the Buddhist holy man, or some other, whose religion expresses quite different notions, surely was. But none of them was making a mistake except where he was putting forward a theory."
--Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough (1931)

“There is no religious denomination in which the misuse of metaphysical expressions has been responsible for so much sin as it has in mathematics.”
--Culture and Value 1 (1929)

"An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.”
-Culture and Value 73 (1948)

“What is eternal and important is often hidden from a man, by an impenetrable veil. He knows: there’s something under there, but he cannot see it. The veil reflects the daylight.”
--Culture and Value 80 (1949)

“I couldn’t for the life of me design a cross in this age; I would rather go to hell than try and design a cross.”
--Conversations with M. O’C Drury

It is a considerable source of debate among Wittgenstein scholars as to whether the later Wittgenstein’s views on ethics and God are substantially different from his earlier stages of thought. Consider again the ending of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

6.5 When the answer cannot be put into words, neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it.

6.51 Skepticism is not irrefutable, but obviously nonsensical, when it tries to raise doubts where no questions can be asked. For doubt can exist only where a question exists, a question only where an answer exists, and an answer only where something can be said.

6.52 We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.

6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy—and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. Although it would not be satisfying to the other person—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—this method would be the only strictly correct one.

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

There are two predominant views of these final remarks in the Tractatus:

  1. PI  is a refutation of TLP; he is rejecting the former logical atomist position he held in Tractatus.
  2. PI is a confirmation of the conclusion that he reaches in TLP; namely, that the atomist position is nonsense and must be exorcised through declaration.

Whatever position ones takes, I think some development of thought can be traced. Broadly speaking, Wittgenstein shifts from a picture view of reality (“A proposition is a picture of reality TLC 4.01), in which names stand for objects in the actual world, to a game view of reality (“Language is an instrument. Its concepts are instincts.” PI #569) in which each game is one among many uses for language in varying human practices. Language's meaning is how it is employed per se in each context: “The question is ‘What is a word really? is analogous to ‘What is a piece in chess?’ (PI #108). Thus, in the early view only certain things qualify as true uses of ideal language; the rest are "made manifest," though they are really non-sensible when examined as propositions. The mystical cannot be spoken with any definitiveness, yet this aspect of life is what is most important. In a letter to the publisher Ludwig von Ficker, Wittgenstein implied as much concerning the TLP: "[M]y 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, . . . in my book by remaining silent about it" (qtd. Monk 178). The TLP becomes a kind of radical via negativa.

Wittgenstein in his earlier mysticism suggests that ethics and God are finally beyond what language can speak to sensibly, so they remain matters silently attested to. One must climb beyond the problems of language and logic. Once such questions are answered, life is to be lived, acted out. His later position treats religion practice as one more language game; nevertheless, the content of faith (if it can be called that) still remains unprovable and unexplainable as a set of rational or doctrinal proofs. Logic and mysticism are joined together by their basis in unattainable [non-foundational?] truths. His 1929 Lecture on Ethics can be considered part of a transitional position. Note how he holds to the idea that language which cannot be empirically verifiable is, in one sense, "nonsense" but it is also terribly serious and admirable:

Now all religious terms seem in this sense to be used as similes or allegorically. For when we speak of God and that he sees everything and when we kneel and pray to him all our terms and actions seem to be parts of a great and elaborate allegory which represents him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win etc.  

But this allegory also describes the experience which I have just referred to. For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. Third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.  

Thus in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.
. . . .

That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and 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.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it

If religion or ethics (they are much the same for Wittgenstein) is not science, it cannot be confirmable in the world; it cannot be "significant" in the sense of being pictorial language, yet it does strive to to move beyond this world, and for that, he feels, it is to be respected. It is allegorical not only in its language but also in its social, ritualistic actions. Indeed, there is something terribly heroic about the one who in spite of the hopelessness of succeeding, still existentially refuses to be caged in.

In 1931, Wittgenstein prepared his Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough. He had begun to move further into a social understanding of language and, therefore, religion. He rejected Frazer's position that "primitive" magic was really a form of very early science; instead, he saw in magical practices a lesser manifestation of the religious impulse, and this impulse is more of an intuitive response to the world: “Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied” (4). The substance of religion would seem to be in the social life-forms that it takes, and these are to be all respected, if not perhaps equally: "The way you use the word 'God' does not show whom you mean--but, rather, what you mean" (CV 50). Religious language becomes a means by which the world is managed; it is not scientific analysis, not should it be; rather it is something more like art.

Wittgenstein would insist that language games are unexplainable: they are without grounds, and this shouldn't be a problem: “You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable ( or unreasonable). It is there—like our life” (On Certainty #559). As such, the historicity of religious claims is a moot point at best: “[T]he New Testament doesn’t have to be proved to be true by historians either. It would make no difference if there had never been a historical person as Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels” (Conversations with M. O’C Drury 101). For Wittgenstein, religion is something like fiction; it informs our lives by its aesthetic and ethical imagery, and yet also like dance or drama in its enacted, experienced living. The empirical truth of it isn't part of the equation:

Queer as it sounds: 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.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i.e. lovingly).  That is the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, not something else.

A believer's relation to these narratives is neither the relation to historical truth (probability), nor yet that to a theory consisting of 'truths of reason'. (CV 32)

Faith is more like a strongly held feeling that shapes one's actions: “It strikes me that 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” (CV 64). And this passionately held interpretation is based in fundamental trust: “Religious faith and superstition are quite different. One of them results from fear and is a sort of false science. The other is trusting” (CV 72). The trust, however, isn't at all concerned with questions of proof; rather, in believing, it acts. Wittgenstein would say it is not so much a set of propositions held as it is a life-form lived out.

Human beings have an ethical (and perhaps epistemological) illness of sorts, and philosophy is an example of that disease, the eternal need to explain, to complicate, to be blinded by theory. Wittgenstein rejected dogma because it sought to function as science. In another way, then, religion and ethics are also a kind of response to the human illness of theory. In 1919, after Wittgenstein returned from WWI, he made plans to become a grammar school teacher. His sister, Hermine, objected to his intellect being used for such a job. He responded to her: "You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet" (qtd. Monk 170). In his notebooks of 1946, he would observe something quite similar: "In former times people went into monasteries. Were they stupid or insensitive people? Well, if people like that found they needed to take such measures in order to be able to go on living, the problem cannot be an easy one!" (CV 49). Wittgenstein saw himself as one plagued by his incessant need to philosophize, even as he also saw himself as one gifted greatly to contribute to these matters. He strived both to eclipse his ethical failings, even as he also suffered what Bertrand Russell called, "the pride of Lucifer."

Consider, then, the following three long reflections on the Christian faith by Wittgenstein. What do they reveal about his intellectual, moral, and emotional struggles? 

I read: "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost." - And it is true: I cannot call him Lord; because that says nothing to me.  I could call him 'the paragon', 'God' even - or rather, I can understand it when he is called thus; but I cannot utter the word "Lord" with meaning.  Because I do not believe that he will come to judge me; because that says nothing to me. And it could say something to me, only if I lived completely differently.

What inclines even me to believe in Christ's Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. - If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man.  He is dead and decomposed.  In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.  But if I am to be REALLY saved, - what I need is certainty - not wisdom, dreams, or speculation - and this certainty is faith.  And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence.  For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.  Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection.   What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption.  Holding fast to this must be holding fast to that belief.  So what that means is: first you must be redeemed and hold on to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) - then you will see that you are holding fast to this belief.  So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven.  Then everything will be different and it will be 'no wonder' if you can do thing that you cannot do now.  (A man who is suspended looks the same as one who is standing, but the interplay of forces within him is nevertheless quite different, so that he can act quite differently that can a standing man.) (CV 33--1937)

. . . .

A miracle is, as it were, a gesture which God makes.  As a man sits quietly and then makes an impressive gesture, God lets the world run on smoothly and then accompanies the words of a saint by a symbolic occurrence, a gesture of nature.  It would be an instance if, when a saint has spoken, the trees around him bowed, as if in reverence. - Now do I believe that this happens? I don't.

The only way for me to believe in a miracle in this sense would be to be impressed by an occurrence in this particular way.  So that I would be say e.g.: "It was impossible to see these trees and not to feel that they were responding the words." Just as I might say "It is impossible to see the face of this dog and not see that he is alert and full of attention to what his master is doing".  And I can imagine that the mere report of the words and life of a saint can make someone believe that the trees bowed.  But I am not so impressed.  . . . 

Go on, believe! It does no harm.

Believing means submitting to an authority. Having once submitted, you can't then, without rebelling against it, first call it into question and then once again find it acceptable.

No cry of torment can be greater than the cry of one man.

Or again, no torment can be greater than what a single human being may suffer.

A man is capable of infinite torment therefore, and so too he can stand in need of infinite help.

The Christian religion is only for the man who needs infinite help, solely, that is, for the man who experiences infinite torment.

The whole planet can suffer no greater torment than a single soul. 

The Christian faith--as I see it--is a man's refuge in this ultimate torment. 

Anyone is such torment who has the gift of opening his heart, rather than contracting it, accepts the means of salvation in his heart. 

Someone who in this way penitently opens his heart to God in confession lays it open for other men too.  In doing this he loses the dignity that goes with his personal prestige and becomes like a child.   That means without official position, dignity or disparity from others.  A man can bare himself before others only out of a particular kind of love.  A love which acknowledges, as it were, that we are all wicked children.

We could also say: Hate between men comes from our cutting ourselves off from each other.  Because we don't want anyone else to look inside us, since it's not a pretty sight in there. 

Of course, you must continue to feel ashamed of what's inside you, but not ashamed of yourself before your fellow-men.

No greater torment can be experienced than One human being can experience.  For if a man feels lost, that is the ultimate torment.  (CV 45-46-ca.1944)

. . . .

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.  Perhaps one could 'convince someone that God exists' by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such a way. 

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the 'existence of this being', but, e.g., sufferings of various sorts. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, --life can force this concept on us.

So perhaps it is similar to the concept of 'object.' (CV 85-86--1950)

Discussion Questions

  1. Does the substance of Wittgenstein's religious views change in any way over the course of this life? Why or why not?
  2. Does the later philosophical position of Wittgenstein on language games necessitate his views on ethics and religion?
  3. Is there any truth to what he holds about the provability of religious claims? Explain.
  4. How much does Wittgenstein's position share with an ethic based on feeling or will?
  5. Conduct a thought experiment: What would different kinds of Christians say in response to Wittgenstein's views: A liberal Protestant? An evangelical? A conservative Catholic? A Christian mystic?
  6. Should one pity, admire, and/or condemn Wittgenstein? Or should one pass over in silence?
  7. Is faith a gift? Can one be socialized into faith? Can suffering bring belief? Explain.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding