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7: Wittgenstein on Religious Belief

Up to this point I have been surveying, and I must admit participating in, the contemporary philosophical wars. But it is time to draw some lessons from this survey. The first one is relatively superficial. It has, indeed, been drawn time and time again from the philosophical wars of different centuries and different generations: that is, the standard methods of the philosopher—careful argument and drawing distinctions—are more successful in showing that a philosophical position is wrong than they are in establishing that any particular philosophical position is right. We have seen, for example, that contemporary theories of reference are unsuccessful, but this much is widely conceded by philosophers who have very different ideas about where to go from here; similarly, we have seen that standard versions of relativism are self-defeating, but again this is widely conceded by philosophers who have different ideas about where to go from here. My own view is that we should not let ourselves fall into either scepticism or relativism with respect to our normative judgments; and I have urged that if we do not let ourselves fall into scepticism and relativism with respect to normative judgments, then a great many philosophical issues look different, including philosophical issues about reference. Yet when I am asked why I oppose scepticism and relativism and various forms of “non-cognitivism” with respect to the normative, my answer is not that I have some grand metaphysical theory of the essential nature of normativity to offer. Far from having such a theory, I have already indicated that the idea of a sharp cut between “facts” and “values” is deeply wrong. But I have to admit that if a philosopher wants to hold a different view, then there are a variety of different views that can be held and a variety of devices that can be used to make those views consistent, even if I do not find the resulting views plausible, or, to be frank, even intelligible. The fundamental reason that I myself stick to the idea that there are right and wrong moral judgments and better and worse moral outlooks, and also right and wrong evaluative judgments and better and worse normative outlooks in areas other than morality, is not a metaphysical one. The reason is simply that that is the way that we—and I include myself in this “we”—talk and think, and also the way that we are going to go on talking and thinking.

Hume confessed that he left his scepticism about the material world behind as soon as he left his study; and I observe that no matter how sceptical or how relativistic philosophers may be in their conversation, they leave their scepticism or their relativism behind the minute they engage in serious discussion about almost any subject other than philosophy. If the project of describing “the absolute conception of the world”, the project of describing “the things in themselves”, the project of dividing our common world into what is “really there” and what is “only a projection”, has collapsed, then that seems to be all the more reason to take our lives and our practice seriously in philosophical discussion.

A quite different standard of philosophical correctness has been proposed by the influential philosopher David Lewis. Lewis believes that what we should do in philosophy is work out the consequences of alternative metaphysical positions with great care, and not only of our own metaphysical positions, but also the consequences of all the alternative metaphysical positions that have been proposed by others or that we can think of ourselves. He believes that when the consequences of the various metaphysical positions are worked out in sufficient detail, then our intuitions will tell us which consequences are the least counterintuitive; and the position that we should accept is the one which is, on balance, most free of strongly counterintuitive consequences.

Lewis himself employs the method I have described with great care and with great brilliance. Yet it is striking that the positions that he himself defends are almost universally rejected by analytic philosophers, and rejected precisely on the ground that they are counterintuitive. For example, Lewis believes in the real existence of all possible worlds, that is, he believes that there is a real world, just as real as our own, in which the American Revolution failed and America is still a British colony; a real world in which Ghengis Khan established a lasting empire; and so on. The method Lewis recommends was the method of philosophers in the Middle Ages, and very few philosophers after the Middle Ages have been satisfied that this is a method by which one can settle any questions whatsoever. Indeed, Peirce regarded this method—the method of What is Agreeable to Reason, as he called it—as precisely the method that had to be overcome for modern scientific thinking to be born.

Lewis, to be sure, describes this method in a way which sounds very anti-foundationalist: “One comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of existing opinions. It is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these preexisting opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system. A metaphysician's analysis of mind is an attempt at systematizing our opinions about mind. It succeeds to the extent that (1) it is systematic, and (2) it respects those of our pre-philosophic opinions to which we are firmly attached.”1 This passage, considered out of context, would lead one to expect that Lewis is an ordinary conceptual analyst and not the throwback to the Middle Ages I just accused him of being; but the context in which it occurs is precisely the chapter defending the doctrine of the real existence of other possible worlds that I alluded to. Although Lewis does defend this metaphysical idea as though he were simply accounting for our “opinions”, it is clear that much more is involved than that.

Lewis begins by pointing out that we do say things like “there are countless other ways that things could have been”. Then he asks:

But what does this mean? Ordinary language permits the paraphrase: there are many ways things could have been besides the way they actually are. On the face of it, this sentence is an existential quantification. It says that there exist many entities of a certain description, to wit “ways the world could have been”. I believe that things could have been different in countless ways; I believe permissible paraphrases of what I believe; taking the paraphrase at face value, I therefore believe in the existence of entities that might be called “ways things could have been”. I call them “possible worlds”.

I do not make it an inviolable principle to take seeming existential quantifications in ordinary language at their face value. But I do recognize a presumption in favor of taking sentences at their face value, unless (1) taking them at face value is known to lead to trouble, and (2) taking them some other way is known not to. In this case neither condition is met. I do not know any successful argument that my realism about possible worlds leads to trouble, unless you beg the question by saying that it already is trouble … All the alternatives I know, on the other hand, do lead to trouble. (Counterfactuals, p. 85)

The trouble with this argument is that even if one is a realist about “ways the world could have been” (whatever being a “realist” means), one doesn't have to think of a “way” the world could have been as another world. And that is how Lewis thinks of it: if someone asks him what a possible world is, his reply is “I can only ask him to admit that he knows what sort of thing our actual world is, and then explain that other worlds are more things of that sort, differing not in kind but only in what goes on in them. We call it alone actual not because it differs in kind from all the rest but because it is the world we inhabit” (p. 85). I once (trying, clumsily, to play his own game) asked him why one couldn't say that a “way” the world could be is just a property, a characteristic, however complicated, that the whole world could have had, rather than another world of the same sort as our own. Lewis's reply wasn't to cite more things that we ordinarily say, and offer paraphrases of them, in the “analytic” style of the paragraph I just quoted. Rather, he argued that if a “way the world could have been” were a property (a “state description” of the entire world), and in a world with one such property (call it P) the Eiffel Tower would have been exactly five hundred feet tall instead of its actual height, then the property “is a world in which the Eiffel tower is five hundred feet tall”—call it Q—must be entailed by the property P. But how can this be? Lewis asked. If properties are simples, then to say that one property P entails another property Q is to assert some kind of a necessary relation between distinct simples, and Lewis found this “unintelligible”. So one would have to think of properties as themselves complexes: but Lewis didn't see how properties could be complexes, for what would they be complexes of?

In spite of Peirce's attacks on the method of What is Agreeable to Reason, I might be willing to listen to this sort of argument if I had the slightest idea of what these intuitions of Lewis's are supposed to be, or why we should trust their deliverances (calling them “opinions” is hardly an answer), or what the significance is of the fact that something appears “intuitive” and something else appears “unintelligible”. Of course, if our intuitions are ways of thinking that have real weight in our lives, whether that weight be practical or spiritual, then I can see why we should regard them as important. But the intuitions to which David Lewis himself gives weight—for example, the intuition that if properties are simples, then it is unintelligible how one property can “entail” another property—seem to me very far from having either practical or spiritual significance. Indeed, far from sharing these intuitions, I feel that I don't even understand what they mean.

A very different objection to the idea of taking our lives and our practice seriously in philosophical discussion comes from radical and/or deconstructionist philosophers. These philosophers sometimes regard any talk of preserving ways in which we speak and think and are going to go on speaking and thinking as inherently reactionary. Isn't it precisely the ways that we speak and think—and according to bourgeois philosophy are going to go on speaking and thinking—that have to be overthrown? If the point of this objection is that we have to overthrow any and every notion of reasonableness or warrant or truth, then I have already discussed this idea at the end of the previous chapter. Let me assume instead a radical critic whom I can take seriously; one who perceives correctly that there are many things that are cruel and unjust about present ways of thinking and talking, and who fears that the maxim that I suggested—that we should give weight in philosophy to the ways we think and talk and are going to go on thinking and talking—may be inherently conservative. This critic points to the danger that the prediction that we are going to go on thinking and talking in a certain way may become a selffulfilling prophecy.

My answer is that the danger is real, but that does not mean that we are doomed to choose between conservativism and an impossible disengagement from our own culture. Ways of thinking and talking that have weight in our lives are connected with and help to constitute ways of living, and certainly the function of philosophers is not simply to endorse existing ways of living; but neither is it to play sceptical games. Refusal to acknowledge our common world does not build a better world. Philosophers have often been the ones to propose new ways of thinking and talking and living; one thinks, for example, of the philosophers who taught us to speak of “the rights of man”. But talk of “the rights of man” was itself ambiguous. On the one hand, it could be taken, and was taken, as the slogan of a revolutionary and Utopian politics, a politics that has again and again drenched the earth with blood. On the other hand, “the rights of man” could be taken, and have been taken, as what Kant called regulative ideas, ideals to strive for, and, as Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls have reminded us, to strive to reconcile with one another. The recognition that there are some good things that we want to preserve in present institutions is not incompatible with the recognition that there is much that is intolerable. As Rorty himself has reminded us, the better can be but need not become the enemy of the best.

These remarks may seem irrelevant to the sort of thing that analytical philosophers do. After all, one can think and talk the way we ordinarily think and talk and also believe reference is fixed by evolution, or that reference is fixed by “causal attachment to the world”, or that it is fixed metaphysically in the way that David Lewis has urged.2 Some analytic philosophers, to be sure, are guilty of challenging the ways we think and talk without proposing any really workable better ways3 of thinking and talking; but most analytic philosopher nowadays consider themselves to be providing something like (or at least “continuous with”) a scientific explanation of the success of ordinary ways of thinking and talking. It is this analogy—the analogy of the work of philosophers like Jerry Fodor, or the proponents of “evolutionary’ intentionality”, or the metaphysicians of “possible worlds” to the work of the scientist—that I find fundamentally frivolous. I am not going to argue this here, but in the case of Fodor and the proponents of evolutionary intentionality the discussion in the previous chapters should suffice to convince anyone who knows what a scientific theory, like the theory of evolution, has really accomplished that there is no analogy at all between a serious scientific theory and a typical construction in “analytic metaphysics”. Most constructions in analytic metaphysics do not extend the range of scientific knowledge, not even speculatively. They merely attempt to rationalize the ways we think and talk in the light of a scientistic ideology.

But I am growing tired of criticizing the errors of contemporary philosophers, analytic and non-analytic alike. In the rest of this book I want to try to sketch a better way in philosophy. I shall not do that by issuing a blueprint for a new philosophy, or even a manifesto. At the best, blueprints and manifestos always involve a good deal of fantasy, and we have seen enough fantasy in recent philosophy—both the fantasy of being scientific and the fantasy of putting an end to the claims of truth and reason. The only way I know of pointing to a better way in philosophy is to engage in a certain kind of reading, a reading of the work of some philosophers who, in spite of their mistakes and their flaws—and what philosopher does not make mistakes and have flaws?—point the way toward and exemplify the possibility of philosophical reflection on our lives and language that is neither frivolously sceptical nor absurdly metaphysical, neither fantastic parascience nor fantastic parapolitics, but serious and fundamentally honest reflection of the most difficult kind.

I shall begin by discussing Wittgenstein's three Lectures on Religious Belief.4 We do not have the full text of these lectures; what we have are notes taken by one of the people who was present. But these notes are a valuable source nonetheless. For one thing, in these lectures Wittgenstein's students sometimes make objections or make suggestions as to what Wittgenstein should say; and Wittgenstein's refusal to accept what his students thought he should say tells us a great deal about Wittgenstein's philosophy, and about the ways in which even the best of his students were tempted to misinterpret it.

I was first led to study the published notes on the Lectures on Religious Belief by their subject, of course, but as I studied them and thought about them it came to seem to me more and more that besides the interest they have for anyone who has thought about the subject of religious language and religious belief, they also have great interest for anyone who is interested in understanding the work of the later Wittgenstein. They were given, in fact, in a transitional period, the summer of 1938, when Wittgenstein's later views were in development, and they by no means bear their meaning on their sleeve. Even if we had the full text of what Wittgenstein said in that room in Cambridge in 1938, I suspect we would be deeply puzzled by these lectures; as it is, we have only twenty-one printed pages of notes summarizing three lectures.

The first of the three lectures sets the interpretative problem before us. What Wittgenstein says in this first lecture is very much contrary to received opinion in linguistic philosophy, and there is an obvious problem as to how it is to be understood. In this lecture, Wittgenstein considers a number of religious utterances, not utterances about God, but about the afterlife, or the Last Judgment, such as “an Austrian general said to someone, ‘I shall think of you after my death, if that should be possible’”. (Wittgenstein says, “We can imagine one group would find this ludicrous, another who wouldn't.”)5 Again, Wittgenstein imagines someone asking him if he believes in a Last Judgment, and on the first page of the published notes Wittgenstein says, “Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says ‘No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you.” Wittgenstein's comment is “If some said: ‘Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?’ I'd say: ‘No.’ ‘Do you contradict the man?’ I'd say: ‘No’ … Would you say: ‘I believe the opposite,’ or ‘There is no reason to suppose such a thing’? I'd say neither.”6 In short—and perhaps this is the only thing that is absolutely clear about these lectures—Wittgenstein believes that the religious man and the atheist talk past one another.

I remember that the first time I had lunch with a great student of comparative religion, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, Smith said to me that when the religious person says “I believe there is a God” and the atheist says “I don't believe there is a God” they do not affirm and deny the same thing. We shall see that Wittgenstein makes the same point later in his lectures. Religious discourse is commonly viewed (by atheists) as pre-scientific or “primitive” discourse which has somehow strangely—due to human folly and superstition—managed to survive into the age of the digital computer and the neutron bomb. Wittgenstein (and Smith) clearly believe no such thing. Wittgenstein's picture is not that the believer makes a claim and the atheist asserts its negation. It is as if religious discourse were somehow incommensurable, to employ a much-abused word. But there are many theories of incommensurability, and the problem is to decide in what way Wittgenstein means to deny the commensurability or homophony of religious and non-religious discourse.

The first lecture provides us with a number of clues. When a question is an ordinary empirical question, the appropriate attitude is often not to say “I believe” or “I don't believe”, but to say, “probably not” or “probably yes” or possibly “I'm not sure”. Wittgenstein uses the example of someone's saying “There is a German aeroplane overhead”. If Wittgenstein were to reply, “Possibly I'm not so sure”, one would say that the two speakers were “fairly near”. But what if someone says “I believe in a Last Judgement” and Wittgenstein replies “Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly”? Wittgenstein says, “You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us”.7 For a typical non-believer, the Last Judgment isn't even a possibility.

I don't think that Wittgenstein is denying that there is a state of mind in which someone on the verge of a religious conversion might suddenly stop and say, “What if there is a Last Judgment?”. But I think that Wittgenstein would deny that this is at all like “Possibly there is a German airplane overhead.”

Wittgenstein distinguishes religious beliefs partly by what he calls their unshakeability. Speaking again of the man who believes in a Last Judgment, Wittgenstein says: “But he has what you might call an unshakeable belief. It will show, not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in [sic] all his life. This is a very much stronger fact—foregoing pleasures, always appealing to this picture. This in one sense must be called the firmest of all beliefs, because the man risks things on account of it which he would not do on things which are by far better established for him. Although he distinguishes between things well-established and not well-established”.8

In understanding these remarks I think it is important to know that although Wittgenstein presents himself in these lectures as a non-believer, we know from the other posthumous writings published as Culture and Value that Wittgenstein had a deep respect for religious belief, that he thought a great deal about religious belief, especially about Christianity, and that in particular he paid a great deal of attention to the writings of Kierkegaard, and especially to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The man who has an unshakeable belief in the Last Judgment and lets it regulate for all his life, although he is very willing to admit that the Last Judgment is not an established fact, sounds like a Christian after Kierkegaard's own heart.9 Yet Kierkegaard himself wrote that faith “has in every moment the infinite dialectic of uncertainty present with it”.10 It would be ludicrous to suppose that inner struggles with the issue of religious belief are something that Wittgenstein did not know. When he takes the unshakeableness of a religious belief as one of its characteristics, he does not mean that a genuine religious belief is always and at every moment free from doubt. Kierkegaard spoke of faith as a state to be repeatedly reentered, and not as a state in which one can permanently stay. But I think that Kierkegaard would agree with Wittgenstein—and that Wittgenstein is here agreeing with Kierkegaard—that religious belief “regulates for all” in the believer's life, even though his religious belief may alternate with doubt. In this respect it is different from an empirical belief. If I confidently believe that a certain way is the right way to build a bridge, then I will set out building the bridge that way. If I come to have doubts, I will not go on building the bridge in that way (unless I am a crooked contractor); I will halt the construction and run further tests and make calculations.

Wittgenstein uses the following example:

Suppose you had two people, and one of them, when he had to decide which course to take, thought of retribution and the other did not. One person might, for instance, be inclined to take everything that happened to him as a reward or punishment, and another person doesn't think of this at all.

If he is ill, he may think: “What have I done to deserve this?” This is one way of thinking of retribution. Another way is, he thinks in a general way whenever he is ashamed of himself: “This will be punished.”

Take two people, one of whom talks of his behaviour and of what happens to him in terms of retribution, the other one does not. These people think entirely differently. Yet, so far, you can't say they believe different things.

[Wittgenstein adds] It is this way: if someone said: “Wittgenstein, you don't take illness as a punishment, so what do you believe?”—I'd say: I don't have any thoughts of punishment.

There are, for instance, these entirely different ways of thinking first of all—which needn't be expressed by one person saying one thing, another person another thing.11

I think we take this example in the wrong way if we suppose that the person who thinks of his life in terms of retribution is supposed to be what we ordinarily call a religious believer. The example doesn't depend on whether he is or isn't. What Wittgenstein means to bring out by the example is that one's life may be organized by very different pictures. And he means to suggest that religion has more to do with the kind of picture that one allows to organize one's life than it does with expressions of belief. As Wittgenstein says, summing up this example, “What we call believing in a judgement Day or not believing in a judgement Day—The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role”.12

Wittgenstein also contrasts the basis upon which one forms empirical beliefs and the basis upon which one forms religious beliefs. “Reasons look entirely different from normal reasons” in the religious case. “They are, in a way, quite inconclusive”. He contrasts two cases: a person who believes that something that fits the description of the Last Judgment will in fact happen, years and years in the future, and who believes this on the basis of what we would call scientific evidence, and a person who has a religious belief which “might in fact fly in the face of such a forecast and say ‘No. There it will break down.’” Wittgenstein says that if a scientist told him that there would be a Last Judgment in a thousand years, and that he had to forgo all pleasures because of such a forecast, that he, Wittgenstein, “wouldn't budge”. But the person whose belief in a such a forecast was religious and not scientific “would fight for his life not to be dragged into the fire. No induction. Terror. That is, as it were, part of the substance of the belief.”13

The quoted passages give some sense of the texture of these notes. What seems most important in this first lecture is the repeated claim that the relation between Wittgenstein (who thoroughly conceals his own struggle with or against religious belief in these lectures) and the believer is not one of contradiction:

If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgement Day, in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn't say: “No. I don't believe there will be such a thing.” It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this.

And then I give an explanation: “I don't believe in …”, but then the religious person never believes what I describe.

I can't say. I can't contradict that person.

In one sense, I understand all he says—the English words “God”, “separate”, etc. I understand. I could say: “I don't believe in this,” and this would be true, meaning I haven't got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. But not that I could contradict the thing.14

At this point, a number of possible interpretations of what Wittgenstein is saying might occur to one. (1) I already mentioned the Kuhnian idea of incommensurability. Perhaps Wittgenstein thinks that religious language and ordinary empirical language are incommensurable forms of discourse. The non-religious person simply can't understand the religious person. (2) The religious person and the non-religious person can understand one another, but the non-religious person is using language literally and the religious person is using it in some non-literal way, perhaps emotively, or to “express an attitude”. (3) Ordinary discourse is “cognitive” and the religious person is making some kind of “non-cognitive” use of language. What I shall try to show in the light of these lectures, and especially the third and concluding lecture, is that Wittgenstein regards the first as a useless thing to say, and the second and third as simply wrong.

This will, of course, not solve the interpretative problem, but it will in a sense sharpen it, and make it interesting. If Wittgenstein is not saying one of the standard things about religious language—for example, that it expresses false pre-scientific theories, or that it is non-cognitive, or that it is emotive, or that it is incommensurable—then what is he saying and how is it possible for him to avoid all of these standard alternatives? Still more important, how does he think we, including those of us who are not religious (and I don't think Wittgenstein himself ever succeeded in recovering the Christian faith in which he was raised, although it was always a possibility for him that he might), are to think about religious language? What sort of a model is Wittgenstein offering us for reflection on what is always a very important, very difficult, and sometimes very divisive part of human life?

Superstition, Religious Belief, Incommensurability

In the second lecture Wittgenstein discusses the difference between the use of pictures to represent people, including biblical subjects, such as Noah and the ark, and the use of pictures to represent God. “You might ask this question: ‘Did Michelangelo think that Noah in the ark looked like this, and that God creating Adam looked like this?’ He wouldn't have said that God or Adam looked as they look in this picture.”15 Interestingly, Wittgenstein says: “In general, there is nothing which explains the meanings of words as well as a picture, and I take it that Michelangelo was as good as anyone can be and did his best, and here is the picture of the Deity creating Adam. If we ever saw this, we certainly wouldn't think this the Deity. The picture has to be used in an entirely different way if we are to call the man in that queer blanket ‘God’, and so on.”16

One concern of Wittgenstein's in the first two lectures is to contrast superstition and credulity—which often coexist with religion, to be sure—with religious belief in his sense. (Again, the parallelism with Kierkegaard is striking.) In the first lecture, the example of superstition is a Catholic priest who tries to offer scientific arguments for the truths of religion. Wittgenstein's comment is:

I would definitely call O'Hara unreasonable. I would say, if this is religious belief, then it's all superstition.

But I would ridicule it, not by saying it is based on insufficient evidence. I would say: here is a man who is cheating himself. You can say: this man is ridiculous because he believes, and bases it on weak reasons.17

In the second lecture, Wittgenstein says:

Suppose I went to somewhere like Lourdes in France. Suppose I went with a very credulous person. There we see blood coming out of something. He says: “There you are, Wittgenstein, how can you doubt?” I'd say: “Can it only be explained one way? Can't it be this or that?” I'd try to convince him that he'd seen nothing of any consequence. I wonder whether I would do that under all circumstances. I certainly know that I would under normal circumstances.

“Oughtn't one after all to consider this?” I'd say: “Come on. Come on.” I would treat the phenomenon in this case just as I would treat an experiment in a laboratory which I thought badly executed.18

Wittgenstein is concerned to deny any continuity at all between what he considers religious belief and scientific belief. When there is a continuity, and only when there is a continuity, Wittgenstein is willing to use words like “ridiculous”, “absurd”, “credulous”, “superstition”.

To come back now to the question of incommensurability. An example might seem to be afforded by Wittgenstein's own thought experiment at the beginning of the first lecture, of imagining two people of whom the first one says “I believe in a Last Judgement” and the second (whom Wittgenstein imagines to be himself) says “Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly.” Here Wittgenstein does say “It isn't a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you could express by saying: ‘You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein.’ ”19 Now, at the beginning of the Philosophical Investigation (§43), Wittgenstein famously (or notoriously) wrote, “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” If, as is too often done, one simply ignores the qualification “though not for all”, and ascribes to Wittgenstein the view that meaning can always be defined as use, then it is natural to read this “theory of meaning” back into the statement I just quoted, from the first of the Lectures on Religious Belief, and to take it that when Wittgenstein insists again and again that the religious person and the non-religious person are using words in different ways, then he literally means that the words “I believe in a Last Judgement” have a different meaning for someone who can speak of the Last Judgment as a matter of “probability” and for a religious believer. But Wittgenstein doesn't say this. In the notes we have of the first lecture, it is Wittgenstein's imaginary interlocutor who says “You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein.” Wittgenstein replies to his imaginary interlocutor, “The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of the meaning.”20

Something lovely happens here. Wittgenstein is often charged with simple-mindedly equating use and meaning. Yet here he imagines an interlocutor who plays the role of the stock “Wittgenstein” and proposes to say that the words “I believe in a Last Judgement” have a different meaning in the two uses (one is, of course, completely imaginary), and the real Wittgenstein reminds the stock “Wittgenstein” that we don't use the word “meaning” that way, that is, that the difference in these two uses is not something that we would ordinarily call a difference in meaning.

Wittgenstein says something more about this toward the end of the same lecture. He points out that as an educated person who has read (and, as we know, has thought deeply about) the religious classics there is a very good sense in which he knows what the religious person means, although there is another sense in which Wittgenstein is inclined to say “I don't know whether I understand him or not”: “If Mr. Lewy [Cassimir Lewy, one of the students present at these sessions] is religious and says he believes in a Judgement Day, I won't even know whether to say I understand him or not. I've read the same things as he's read. In a most important sense, I know what he means.”21 Wittgenstein immediately goes on to ask, “If an atheist says: ‘There won't be a Judgement Day’, and another person says there will, do they mean the same?—Not clear what the criterion of meaning the same is. They might describe the same things. You might say, this already shows that this means the same.”22

So Wittgenstein is warning us against supposing that talk of “meaning the same” and “not meaning the same” will clarify anything here. In a perfectly ordinary sense of meaning the same, we might say that they do mean the same (although Wittgenstein is still inclined to say “I don't even know whether I should say that I understand him or not”); and to dismiss the question whether the words mean the same, that is, whether the sentence means the same, as of no help here, is precisely to dismiss “incommensurability” talk. That the two speakers aren't able to communicate because their words have different “meanings” is precisely the doctrine of incommensurability.

Another familiar move is to say that religious language is “emotive”, that is, that it is used to “express attitudes”. It might seem possible (at least to some) to read these lectures as holding some version of this doctrine, if it were not for the very end of the third lecture. At that point Wittgenstein returns again to the question of whether he (as a non-believer) should say that he understands the the sentences of the religious person or not:

Suppose someone, before going to China, when he might never see me again, said to me: “We might see one another after death”—would I necessarily say that I don't understand him? I might say [want to say] simply, “Yes. I understand him entirely.”

Lewy: “In this case, you might only mean that he expressed a certain attitude.”

I would say “No, it isn't the same as saying ‘I'm very fond of you’ ”—and it may not be the same as saying anything else. It says what it says. Why should you be able to substitute anything else?

Suppose I say: “The man used a picture.”23

I want to postpone discussion of the last suggestion for a few moments. The reply to Lewy is extremely interesting. What I take Wittgenstein to be pointing out is that there is a perfectly ordinary notion of expressing an attitude, and what he is doing is contrasting the kind of metaphysical emphasis that non-cognitivists (either about religious language or about ethical language) want to put on the notion of expressing an attitude with the ordinary unemphasized use of that notion. If I am fond of someone, I may express my fondness in a variety of ways, for example, by saying “there's no one like you”. In such a case, we might say that I was expressing an attitude, and we can say what the attitude was, namely, I was expressing my fondness for the person. That attitude can be expressed explicitly, by saying “I am very fond of So-and-so”. However, Wittgenstein is refusing to say that language is “used to express an attitude” when there is no possibility of replacing the language in question by an explicit expression of the so-called attitude. The reason is not hard to guess. Wittgenstein refuses to turn the distinction between saying something because that is, quite literally, what one means to say, and saying something to express an attitude, into a metaphysical distinction. As a metaphysical distinction it makes no sense at all without an appropriate metaphysical notion of a “real fact” (the sort of fact that David Lewis can “take at face value”); and that, evidently, is what Wittgenstein thinks we haven't got. (Compare this with the attempt, discussed in the previous chapter, to draw a distinction between an absolute conception of the world and a fact which is only a fact in “some social world or other”, in the case of ethics.) In The Claim of Reason, Stanley Cavell suggested that Charles Stevenson, the father of emotivism, wrote as if he had forgotten what ethical arguments sound like.24 Wittgenstein is saying that Lewy is talking as if he had forgotten what religious language sounds like. The philosophical doctrine of non-cognitivism does not help us to understand what religious discourse is really like any more than the philosophical doctrine of incommensurability does.

What then is Wittgenstein saying? I believe that what Wittgenstein (in company with Kierkegaard) is saying is this: that religious discourse can be understood in any depth only by understanding the form of life to which it belongs.25 What characterizes that form of life is not the expressions of belief that accompany it, but a way—a way that includes words and pictures, but is far from consisting in just words and pictures—of living one's life, of regulating all of one's decisions. Here the believer, Kierkegaard, would add something that Wittgenstein does not say, but that I think he would agree with: namely, that a person may think and say all the right words and be living a thoroughly non-religious life. Indeed, Kierkegaard insists that a person may think he or she is worshipping God and really be worshipping an idol. (I suspect that this is one of the reasons that Kierkegaard is so much hated by fundamentalists. For Kierkegaard an authentically religious form of life is characterized by a constant concern that one not replace the idea of God with a narcissistic creation of one's own; and this concern expresses itself in uncertainty as much as in certainty. For Kierkegaard, to be absolutely sure you are “born again” is a sign that you are lost.) What Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein have in common is the idea that understanding the words of a religious person properly—whether you want to speak of understanding their “meaning” or not—is inseparable from understanding a religious form of life, and this is not a matter of “semantic theory”, but a matter of understanding a human being.26

The Religious Person “Uses a Picture”

Still, Wittgenstein himself does say that the religious person “uses a picture”. Is this not a way of saying that religious language is non-cognitive? Indeed, Yvor Smythies seems to share this worry, since he objects toward the very end of the third lecture, “This isn't all he does—associate a use with a picture.” Wittgenstein's initial reply is, “Rubbish”—hardly an encouraging response. Wittgenstein goes on to explain that when he says the religious man is using a picture, he does not mean by that anything that the religious person himself would not say:

Smythies: “This isn't all he does—associate a use with a picture.”

Wittgenstein: Rubbish. I meant: what conclusions are you going to draw? etc. Are eyebrows going to be talked of, in connection with the Eye of God?

“He could just as well have said so and so”—this [remark] is foreshadowed by the word “attitude”. He couldn't just as well have said something else.

If I say he used a picture, I don't want to say anything he himself wouldn't say. I want to say that he draws these conclusions.

Isn't it as important as anything else, what picture he does use?

Of certain pictures we say that they might just as well be replaced by another—e.g. we could, under certain circumstances, have one projection of an ellipse drawn instead of another.

[He may say]: “I would have been prepared to use another picture, it would have had the same effect.…”

The whole weight may be in the picture …

When I say he's using a picture, I'm merely making a grammatical remark: [What I say] can only be verified by the consequences he does or does not draw.

If Smythies disagrees, I don't take notice of this disagreement.

All I wished to characterize was the conventions [sic] he wished to draw. If I wished to say anything more I was merely being philosophically arrogant.27

“All I wished to characterize was the conventions [consequences] he wished to draw. If I wished to say anything more I was merely being philosophically arrogant.” One of the most impressive remarks a great philosopher has ever made in a discussion! Wittgenstein is saying here that to say the religious person is using a picture is simply to describe what we can in fact observe: that religious people do employ pictures, and that they draw certain consequences from them, but not the same consequences that we draw when we use similar pictures in other contexts. If I speak of my friend as having an eye, then normally I am prepared to say that he has an eyebrow, but when I speak of the Eye of God being upon me, I am not prepared to speak of the eyebrow of God. But the impressive thing here is not what Wittgenstein says, but the limit he places on his own observation. Pictures are important in life. The whole weight of a form of life may lie in the pictures that that form of life uses. In his own notes, some of which are republished in the collection Culture and Value, Wittgenstein says “It is true that we can compare a picture that is firmly rooted in us to a superstition, but it is equally true that we always eventually have to reach some firm ground, either a picture or something else, so that a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition”.28

In passing, I should like to say that these remarks seem to go totally against the idea that Wittgenstein was against pictures as such. When Wittgenstein attacks philosophers for being in the grip of a picture, the usual reading of this is that Wittgenstein opposes pictures—that pictures are bad. But Wittgenstein in his lectures29 during the 1930s repeatedly praises pictures in two ways: he praises them as good ways of explaining the meaning of words (we had an example of this in the first lecture) and, moreover, he speaks of pictures as having “weight”, or of pictures’ being “at the root of all one's thinking”. Evidently, then, if certain philosophers are attacked by Wittgenstein for being in the grip of a picture, we may conclude that what is wrong is not that pictures are bad, but that certain pictures are bad—that there are pictures that should not “grip” one, presumably because they lack any significant “weight”, because they are not the sort of pictures which could be at the root of all one's thinking.30

To return to the subject of religious language, one might still suggest, even though Wittgenstein here does not say that religious language is non-cognitive, because he doesn't “want to say anything that [the religious person] wouldn't say”, that he has by implication, at least, said that it is non-cognitive, and one might suggest that this is what Smythies was sensitive to, and what Wittgenstein refused to “take notice of”. This suggestion raises issues that I will address in the next chapter.

  • 1.

    David Lewis. Counterfactuals (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 88.

  • 2.

    Lewis thinks it is fixed primarily by an “eliteness” or “naturalness” metric over kinds which belongs to the nature of reality itself, independent of our interests. For references and a discussion see the next-to-last chapter of my Representation and Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988).

  • 3.

    The suggestion advanced by Paul and Patricia Churchland that we reject “folk psychology” as, in effect, mythology, and the suggestion advanced by Paul Churchland that we need “a successor concept to the notion of truth” are good examples of this. For references and a discussion see chap. 4 of Representation and Reality.

  • 4.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

  • 5.

    Ibid., p. 53.

  • 6.


  • 7.


  • 8.

    Ibid., p. 54.

  • 9.

    Wittgenstein also said in the first lecture, “It has been said a thousand times, and by intelligent people, that indubitability is not enough in this case [Christianity]. Even if there is as much evidence as for Napoleon. Because the indubitability wouldn't be enough to make me change my whole life. It doesn't rest on a historic basis (in the sense that the ordinary belief in historic facts could serve as a foundation)” (p. 57). Compare this with what Søren Kierkegaard said about the historical argument in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941). pp. 25–48. When Wittgenstein writes “intelligent people” is he speaking of Kierkegaard?

  • 10.

    Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 53.

  • 11.

    Wittgenstein, Lectures, pp. 54–55.

  • 12.

    Ibid., p. 55.

  • 13.

    Ibid., p. 56.

  • 14.

    Ibid., p. 55.

  • 15.

    Ibid., p. 63.

  • 16.


  • 17.

    Ibid., p. 59.

  • 18.

    Ibid., pp. 60–61.

  • 19.

    Ibid., p. 53.

  • 20.


  • 21.

    Ibid., p. 58.

  • 22.

    Ibid. I have rectified the quotation marks.

  • 23.

    Ibid., p. 70.

  • 24.

    Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 247–291.

  • 25.

    See Stanley Cavell “Existentialism and Analytic Philosophy,” in Themes out of School (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984).

  • 26.

    I want to acknowledge that I have been very much aided in arriving at this understanding of Kierkegaard by the Cavell essay cited in the previous note, and also by a study by James Conant, “Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Nonsense,” in Pursuits of Reason: Essays Presented to Stanley Cavell, ed. T. Cohen, P. Guyer, and H. Putnam (Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech University Press, 1992), in which he compares the exegetical difficulties in reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus and those we face in reading Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript. I do not, of course, assume that either Cavell or Conant would necessarily agree with the formulations here.

  • 27.

    Wittgenstein, Lectures, pp. 71–72.

  • 28.

    Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 83.

  • 29.

    See, for example, lecture 25 in Wittgenstein's Lectures on the Philosophy of Mathematics, ed. Cora Diamond (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

  • 30.

    James Conant has suggested to me that one should also consider the metaphor of “gripping” involved in “being in the grip of a picture”. The suggestion is that philosophical pictures constrain rather than liberate, perhaps.

From the book: