Hello, everyone! I make no claims to being a Wittgenstein expert–I’m just beginning to learn more about him, having noticed he has some affinities with Kierkegaard, one of my favorites, and thinking about applying Wittgenstein’s thought in my upcoming book Witch Hunt.
It strikes me that Wittgenstein’s work is profoundly mystical and religious. I gather that the early Wittgenstein, represented mainly in the Tractatus, his first and only published work, offers something of a pictorial view of language–that words name objects, so that statements are either true or false if the real world corresponds to the statement. For instance, “The cat is on the mat” is either true or false, depending on whether we can verify it in the world. “The world is all that is the case,” as Wittgenstein puts it. The logical positivists really ran with this, people like A.J. Ayer going so far as to say, with his verification principle, that any statements that could not be empirically verified, such as religious statements like “Jesus is Lord,” are nonsensical.
But I don’t sense that with Wittgenstein. Rather, he ends the Tractatus with the idea that, of what we cannot speak, we should be silent. There’s a sense of a reverential silence there. It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s views that religious truth cannot be objectively formulated–that real, passionate truth is subjectivity for Kierkegaard.
The later Wittgenstein seems to me to reject his own initial view of words as only naming objects and realizes different types of language function differently–here he comes up with his views on language games.
Wittgenstein argues there is no essential meaning to any word, and that the meaning of a word is its use in a particular context. Words are like tools in a toolbox–the meaning of a word is its use. A word has no ultimate, Platonic, universal definition. Thus, his example of what we call a “game”–some games are competitive, but some are not (tossing a balloon back and forth with a child), some games are team games, some are not (Solitaire), etc.–so that there is no essential meaning to the word “game.” Rather, the various things we call “games” have family resemblances to each other.
This impacts religion, for there is no single definition of religion. Some religions have one God, some many, some none. And even what seems common to all of what we call religion, such as that they have ritual, does not apply in all cases (such as a solitary monk who follows no rituals, unless you call the monkhood itself a ritual).
Thus, Wittgenstein in many ways responds to A.J. Ayer and makes room for such statements as “Jesus is Lord,” which does make sense in its own language game. Where science and religion get confused is when they try to apply their own criteria to another discourse. It makes no empirical, scientific sense to talk about Adam and Eve, for instance–science cannot deal with that. However, from a religious standpoint, that story has a lot to say about human destiny, free will, sin, our relationship with God and estrangement, etc. So scientific and religious discourse can complement each other.
I like that about Wittgenstein–he makes room for faith and the language of faith, but it’s mystical and does not have to be scientific. Of course, the criticism I would have of Wittgenstein is that, if taken too far, science and religion then have no way to criticize each other, and I think mutual criticism is beneficial for both. Religious thought should always take scientific thought seriously, and, since science cannot really answer ethical questions, or ultimate “why” questions either, I believe science has to be in dialogue with religion.
In my own work, not only do I have an admiration for Wittgenstein because of that mystical quality, but also his fight against our craving for generality, as he calls it: our attempts to universalize the meanings of words. For instance, “harassment,” and this is how I’m thinking of using Wittgenstein in Witch Hunt–we use that word “harassment” in very many different ways in sexual harassment law, especially “hostile environment” sexual “harassment”–and some of those ways seem very harmful to me (quid pro quo extorting someone for sex, and real types of intentional harassment, for instance), while others not so much (merely asking someone out and being too shy and hence awkward about it, or telling a joke). And yet, when we hear the word “harassment,” we have a craving to generalize it all as wrong and slam people for their “immorality.” (Again, I’ve been accused of it twice, in both cases I think unfairly and maliciously, and I was lied to and entrapped–I am combining those two experiences into one, fictionalizing it, and using that to form the basic story of Witch Hunt). I personally think we toss that word “harassment” around and bewitch ourselves as to its meaning, and Wittgenstein can help us clear up our philosophical confusion. That’s how I’m going to try to use his work in Witch Hunt. (I hope that made some sense–I’m just beginning to formulate the ideas about Wittgenstein and haven’t fleshed them out fully yet, plus I’m trying to be somewhat brief here.)
Anyway, that’s my .02 for today, for what it’s worth. Again, I’m not claiming any fantastic expertise in Wittgenstein. That’s why I say he is “perhaps” amazing. 🙂 I’m just saying I like him so far, even though I’m just beginning to study him in depth, for many of the reasons I like Kierkegaard–they both seem to me to go beyond a literalistic interpretation of religious language (and language itself) and instead have a mystical reverence for that which language often cannot adequately express.
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