From Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality and Philosophical Method
1989 Charles L. Creegan
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Chapter Three

Problems Of Interpretation

The special nature of the methods used by both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein makes the task of interpreting and applying their works particularly difficult. In fact, the first problem is whether 'interpretation' and 'application' are the appropriate categories in which to examine their concerns. Insofar as they both spoke to particular individuals concerning the particular therapies appropriate to particular problems, it would seem ironic at best to attempt to abstract some general principles which could be followed in various cases. It is especially hard to imagine what an interpretation of such a particularized therapy would be. Both authors stress the limits of possible explanation, as will be seen below.

Two forms of 'interpretation,' which often create problems in the attempt to understand other writers, are especially dangerous in the cases of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

The first of these problematic methods is the tendency to think of the works as containing, or at least sketching, a 'systematic philosophy.' Such a system would have room for particular theoretical positions on most of the traditional questions of philosophy: a general ethics, an epistemology, a metaphysics, and so forth.

The second dangerous principle of interpretation has in common with the first that it tends toward 'system.' But rather than interpreting the existing work as systematic, this method operates in a more insidious way. It consists in taking some fragments of the author's work out of context, reifying a systematic theory from them, and using that to generate 'the author's position' on a given topic. [53]

Both of these principles of interpretation can be seen at work in the most common understandings of two points essential to Kierkegaard's and Wittgenstein's authorships. One of these points is the relative importance of the individual subject and society. A closely related field is their understanding of the relations between different societies or worldviews. An investigation of the way in which the authors themselves approached these issues may shed light, not only on the issues, but also on the possibility of 'interpretation' and 'extension' of their work.


The tendency to reify theories is especially evident in interpretations of one of the most famous portions of the Philosophical Investigations, the so-called 'Private Language Argument.' It is particularly significant of the danger here that there is some disagreement about the exact portion of the text which should be counted as belonging to the 'argument'! There are no definite boundaries in the text. (This is a by-product of the 'Galtonian photograph' writing style, in which the whole text is needed in order fully to support any one portion of it.) But the first indexed use of the term 'private' occurs at section 243, and the discussion of rule following and 'knowing how to go on' picks up after about section 320.

The mere fact that this discussion is called 'the Private Language Argument' may well produce some expectations about its content. Surely it must have to do 1) with language; 2) with a private language - that is, one available only to a single individual. Furthermore, a cursory knowledge of Wittgenstein's general disposition suffices for one to be fairly sure that he would be 'against' the idea of private languages. He often speaks of 'language-games,' and the paradigm of games is social.1 His term 'form of life,' which appears (among other places) just before the beginning of the section on privacy, also expresses a clearly social idea.

The expectation which this background information raises is that the argument is a reaction to a thing which has been proposed. This thing is a language, like languages we have all experienced and used. It is also private - it is the protocol of an internal dialogue. However, Wittgenstein is against it on evidential grounds. He relegates it to the status of 'the present king of France,' or better 'the third eye in the middle of my forehead.' This physiognomic innovation would have its uses, but - unfortunately - it does not exist. [54]

Such an interpretation of Wittgenstein's position necessarily reduces the value of the individual subject in her subjectivity. If there is no language for internal reports, then (to take a positivistic line of argument) there can be no 'subject.' Only what is speakable is real, and only what is public is speakable; so only what is public is real - only the social dimension counts.

This understanding of Wittgenstein's intentions does not take into account the nature of his interest in phenomena. He remarks that philosophical investigations are conceptual in nature, and the classic error of metaphysics is that it confuses factual and conceptual work.2 Then if indeed Wittgenstein is 'against' 'private language,' it will not be that he finds such a thing to be conceivable (but contingently nonexistent); rather it will be because the whole conceptual scheme suggested by the idea 'private language' is wrong. Then the question 'can there be a private language?' will not be settled, but eliminated. This will be true because the model of 'language' will be shown to be inapplicable at this point.3

The difference between Wittgenstein's method and factual investigation is suggested by a metaphor he himself used. Rather than resolving an argument as one would release the tension from a spring, he proposes to dissolve the argument as one would dissolve the spring in acid!4 The metaphor neatly illustrates his intention to work in a different dimension.

A clue that the 'Private Language Argument' might reject a whole conceptual scheme is already available in section 244 of the Investigations, at the very beginning of the 'argument.' There Wittgenstein remarks that 'the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.' Both crying and saying 'Ouch!' are 'pain-behaviors'; but the verbal expression is learned.

The problem addressed arises because of a conflict between the surface and deep grammars of certain expressions of pain. Exclamations are fairly primitive linguistic pain-behaviors. Far more sophisticated ones exist. Even on the next possible level, an instantaneous utterance such as 'That hurts!,' the apparent form is that of a report. And a much used example, 'I have a toothache,' even makes it sound as if there were a thing (genus pain, species toothache) that is the object reported. From these cases it is easy to suppose that 'Ouch' and crying are also 'reports' about what 'I know.'

A closer examination of the complex expressions ('in the [55] language game which is their home') reveals that they do not function like the simple declarative sentences they emulate. This is easy to see if we assume they are sentences in the 'game of information' and try to use them as such.

Jane: I've got five dollars.
Harry: I'm from Missouri; you'll have to show me!
Jane: (taking out her wallet) Here they are.

Paul: I've got a headache!
Tom: Wow! Can I see, huh? Huh??
Paul: ??!!?!?

Jane can easily produce physical evidence to back up her assertion. But Paul could at best produce symptoms. This kind of gap is totally unacceptable in sensation statements. Rather than being the kind of propositions which can be objectively only true or false (though perhaps psychologically or statistically probable, uncertain, highly doubtful), statements like Paul's are indubitable - 'that is how we use it. (And here "know" means that the expression of uncertainty is senseless.)'5

As the 'argument' continues, Wittgenstein's intentions are clouded by his methodology. There is a long discussion of whether it would be possible for someone to name privately a sensation, 'S,' and keep track of the occurrences of this sensation. This begins to look like a factual investigation. Why is it wrong to say one could have such a diary? The temptation is to suppose that there are factual reasons: our language does not work like that; the concepts used in recognizing a sensation are public ones; there would be no independent check on one's memory; and so forth. In short, 'entries in a private diary' cannot be verified. It is easy to approach this section of the 'argument' at such a level.

The sequence of observations concerning sensations makes a different sense if it is seen in the light of the previous section.6 In that case, it will hardly seem possible that it should be a factual investigation. What else could it be? What objective is in sight?

The 'argument' about private diaries seems to belong with some material later on about 'mental processes.' The grammatical similarity between psychological sentences and external reports might lead one to think of the 'mental theater,' on whose stage these mental objects cavort. Once again, it is a question of eliminating the open space. There is no room between the [56] toothache and the 'Ouch!'; thus the 'Ouch!' is not a report. But the same is true of the other mental processes; they are holistic and not mechanical in nature.7

In that case the concern about 'private naming' of a sensation would not be intended to deny the occurrence of any behavior, or indeed the possibility of 'recognizing' one's pains, in an ordinary sense. The point would be that the 'private language' use is an extraordinary sense. Once a space is opened up between one's pains and one's recognition of them, an infinite regress becomes possible: '"Well, I believe that this is the sensation S again." - Perhaps you believe that you believe it!'8 The dilemma can only be solved by recognizing that you do not believe, in the ordinary sense, that the sensation reappears. Rather, you simply have the same sensation; there is no question about it. The same point is made by Wittgenstein's example of the mental timetable in section 265.

Some light is shed on this material by the following paragraph from the Investigations.

That expression of doubt has no part in the language-game; but if we cut out human behaviour, which is the expression of sensation, it looks as if I might legitimately begin to doubt afresh. My temptation to say that one might take a sensation for something other than what it is arises from this: if I assume the abrogation of the normal language-game with the expression of a sensation, I need a criterion of identity for the sensation; and then the possibility of error also exists.9
A philosophical problem is arising with the idea of sensation simply because 'language is going on holiday'; one has only to look at the context in order to eliminate the problem.

The necessary complement to the above remark on context can be gleaned from a single sentence found in the very next section of the Investigations: 'To use a word without justification does not mean to use it without right.'10 One might be led to the (mental or physical) 'process' theory of sensation reporting if one were seeking to legitimize pain-utterances. But in ordinary circumstances (in the language-game of sensations) there is no need for such legitimization. The need for explanations has stopped; the individual is for these purposes indivisible. As Wittgenstein points out, an explanation could not be required for every possible problem; the result of such a demand would be the centipede's dilemma. [57]

In the particular case of psychological language, decisions on the need for observations are part of the 'grammar' of the terms. The grammar of first-person present terms is not the same as that of those in the third person: the former do not require observation and do not permit of explanation; the latter do.11

This is of course not to say that there are not extraordinary circumstances in which some other proof might be required. There is a language-game of lying; a language-game of play-acting; a language-game of malingering. In some cases we might be unsure just which of these language-games our interlocutor is engaged in. Then the problem is compounded. But these circumstances are extraordinary. There are particular surroundings in which we might expect them - a poker game, a theater, the prospect of a hard day's work. Absent these surroundings, there is no reason to assume that things are other than they seem.

A last confusion on this point might arise in connection with the simile of the 'beetle in the box.' If the outside of the box is all that is ever seen publicly, then the supposed contents have 'no place in the language-game at all, not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. - No, one can "divide through" by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.'12 Compare Zettel, section 550: 'What purpose is served by the statement: "I do have something, if I have a pain?"' The aim here is again to show that the deep grammar is different, even though the game played looks like one where there is an object or a physical thing I have.

This might be taken for behaviorism. The contents of the person are irrelevant, only her behavior is worthy of note. Wittgenstein's association of words' meaning with use has led some interpreters in this direction. But Wittgenstein is careful to point out that he is rejecting only a grammar, and not a metaphysics.13 If one understands sensation-talk on the model of 'object' and 'name,' then the 'object' is irrelevant. But whereas the behaviorist does so understand sensation, Wittgenstein does not.14 'What greater difference could there be' than between pain-behavior with pain and false pain-behavior, he asks. The individual does have internality; but it does not consist of objects which are then reported. He rejects the idea that language only conveys thoughts concerning a variety of internal and external existents.15 'The meaning of a word' is often 'its use in the language.' This is not for any positivist, verificationist, or behaviorist reasons; it does not [58] invite factual inquiry. Wittgenstein appeals to use, or usage (Gebrauch), where reasons come to an end.16

Wittgenstein's disapproval of mechanical explanations is further shown in the Zettel, where he discusses psychophysical parallelism. In a way this is an extension of the various arguments against 'having mental objects.' If ideas are things, and they are processed by the brain much as a computer would process them (for instance if human memory is thought of as similar in function to computer memory), then the extreme variety of possible human behaviors and results begins to make the brain look like something 'occult,' as Wittgenstein puts it.

Thought can as it were fly, it doesn't have to walk. You do not understand your own transactions, that is to say you do not have a synoptic view of them, and you as it were project your lack of understanding into the idea of a medium in which the most astounding things are possible.17
But if this model is abandoned and thinking regarded as a 'game' similar to, but not exactly the same as computing, then it no longer seems impossible.18 It is not a question of rejecting subjectivity, but of altering the model on which we base our understanding of it. Wittgenstein's effort in this direction is conceptual and not factual.


Wittgenstein's understanding of the irreplaceable nature and importance of the individual comes to prominence in connection with an important question concerning language-games and 'forms of life' - the problem of inter-game understanding and relativism.

As usual with Wittgenstein, there could be various interpretations of the term 'form of life.' (J. F. M. Hunter suggests four possibilities in one article!)19 There is a continuing debate over the scope of the phenomenon referred to by this term. Both very broad and very narrow interpretations have been offered.20 Peter Winch has suggested that 'humanity' in general is a form of life.21 Others have claimed that the only coherent interpretation limits the scope to the social component of individual linguistic practices ('asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying' and the like), and that, in fact, 'form of life' and 'language-game' are nearly interchangeable. Recently, Hilmy has attempted to show that a narrow interpretation is correct on the grounds that 'forms of life' must be able to generate or support the meaning of specific signs, and no wide and [59] nebulous phenomenon would have the necessary 'specificity.'22

All of these interpretations share the presupposition that when Wittgenstein spoke of 'forms of life,' he was naming a metaphysical entity which he discovered. It is thus very frustrating to find it ill-defined. But this lack of definition may be quite intentional. Rather, there may have been no intent to define at all. As was noted in Chapter 2, Wittgenstein only mentions the features of his invented concepts which are necessary to the purpose at hand, leaving them somewhat indeterminate. After all, they are reminders and not metaphysical assertions. Indeed, this indeterminacy is an important part of his methodology, which he explicitly defends in the case of 'language-games.'23 Nor is it an arbitrary choice or an affectation on his part; the rules of natural languages are always in transition. As he is at some pains to point out, there is no such thing as a rule which fully specifies every application. Every activity, including language use, is an exploration of what the rules allow or suggest.

In keeping with this general observation, it is important to remember that the term 'language-game' is not intended as a systematic category (or worse, a metaphysical assertion about how things must be). It reminds us, not only that language as a human activity is subject to rules, but also that various rules are possible, and that rules may change.

Language-games give general guidelines of the application of language. Wittgenstein suggests that there are innumerably many language-games: innumerably many kinds of use of the components of language.24 The grammar of the language-game influences the possible relations of words, and things, within that game. But the players may modify the rules gradually. Some utterances within a given language-game are applications; others are 'grammatical remarks' or definitions of what is or should be possible. (Hence Wittgenstein's remark, 'Theology as grammar'25 - the grammar of religion.)

The idea of the 'form of life' is a reminder about even more basic phenomena. It is clearly bound up with the idea of language. (Language and 'form of life' are explicitly connected in four of the five passages from the Investigations in which the term 'form of life' appears.) Just as grammar is subject to change through language-uses, so 'form of life' is subject to change through changes in language. (The Copernican revolution is a paradigm case of this.) [60] Nevertheless, 'form of life' expresses a deeper level of 'agreement.' It is the level of 'what has to be accepted, the given.'26 This is an agreement prior to agreement in opinions and decisions. Not everything can be doubted or judged at once.

This suggests that 'form of life' does not denote static phenomena of fixed scope. Rather, it serves to remind us of the general need for context in our activity of meaning. But the context of our meaning is a constantly changing mosaic involving both broad strokes and fine-grained distinctions.

The more commonly understood point of the 'Private Language Argument' - concerning the root of meaning in something public - comes into play here. But it is important to show just what public phenomenon Wittgenstein has in mind. He remarks: 'Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning.'27 But what this does not indicate is a rational or consensual bestowal of meaning. That sort of move could easily be the first step in an infinite regress. For the bestowal would then stand in need of justification. One of Wittgenstein's favorite lines expresses this point perfectly. 'In the beginning was the deed.'28 Language - discussion - is secondary. This ironic reversal marks him once and for all as something other than a linguistic philosopher! The remarks on 'pain-behavior' have already suggested that it can be profitable to think of language as a particularly complex form of deed.29 His emphasis is on the context, and not the words.

The idea of 'seeing-as' is clearly germane to the discussion at this point. For the 'form of life' and language-games being instantiated will be strong factors in determining how any object or situation is seen, conceptualized, and understood. But here is where the problem of relativism arises. How can anyone within one form of life and language-game communicate with someone outside their community - much less convert them?

In some situations an artificial answer has been imposed from above - a form of life which both parties share, though they may have disagreements at another level. A good example of this kind of resolution is the system of civil law. But a situation much more difficult to resolve may arise when the conflict is between a religious believer and a non-believer, or between a 'westerner' and a 'primitive.' It is in this last case that some of the most famous battles over the application of Wittgenstein's thought have been waged. [61]

One possible position in this debate is that upheld by Alasdair MacIntyre.30 He maintains that, in order to escape the specter of relativism, any 'understanding' of another group can only be in the terms of the observer's 'criteria of rationality.' This understanding is to be based on an impartial observation of the empirical facts. The observer will then go on to legitimize or refute the 'rationality of the criteria.' Deviations from the observer's rationality on the part of the observed society are to be explained, partly by the use of historical investigations into their origins.31 Thus it is possible for the modern western scientist to explain the 'irrelevance' of both Zande and Christian beliefs. Nor can the subjects object to the analysis, unless they wish to be labeled cultural relativists (and dismissed). Thus anyone who 'understands' Christianity cannot believe it; any believer does not understand it.32

This analysis leaves one with a feeling of discomfort. Part of the reason for this feeling is that it simply is possible to get from one world view to another. One can imagine a Nuer tribesman going to Oxford, and gaining an 'understanding' of Western science and various other belief systems (including his own and Christianity) - then becoming a Christian missionary and returning home. How would MacIntyre explain this series of changes in world view?

One obvious answer is the phenomenon of 'conversion.' The convert learns to 'go on' in a different way than before, seeing a different aspect of the world which presents itself to her. But this is not a complete description of all the possibilities.

A further set of possibilities is suggested by the existence of certain remarkable individuals who seem able to operate in more than one world view, nearly at will. Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are good examples.33 It would be hard to dispute that Kierkegaard both 'understood' and 'believed' Christianity. Wittgenstein's understanding of religion is also a far more friendly one than MacIntyre's. MacIntyre provides two more examples, those of E. E. Evans-Pritchard and E. R. Leach. He attributes the remarkable usefulness of their works to the fact that, although their theories are nearly opposite, they do set out their methods and prejudices, then give their reports (which are subject to these prejudices). But this suggests that their grasp of the other culture is separable from their (theoretical) 'understanding' of it. In other words, the way in which they understand, yet don't believe, leaves open the possibility that one might both understand and believe.34 [62]

These few examples are reinforced by the ease with which one slips from one language-game to another within a language and culture. In writing these words, for instance, I am combining facility in philosophy and in the use of the word-processing program I am using. Examples from other games are imported at need. In many cases, two concepts in different games are accessed using the same word. (Compare Wittgenstein's discussion of 'calling to memory,' Kierkegaard's existential concern with memory from Either/Or, and my concern that this chapter not grow too large to fit into my computer's memory.) Difficulties in accomplishing this function are the exception, rather than the rule. They are often funny, like the Looking-Glass discussion of Nobody.

This circuitous discussion is now ready to return to one of its starting points - the importance of the individual in Wittgenstein's thought. Several examples will serve to show this importance. How do examples from music come to the service of philosophy? Wittgenstein uses them, and his readers must participate in both games to get his point. How is it that anti-Hegelian metaphysics comes to the service of religious commitment? Kierkegaard relates them. How is it that Gorbachev and Reagan communicate? A translator interposes himself. How is it that the link between language-games is made? I make it.

Each of these examples stresses the point, often made by Wittgenstein, that language-games are activities (just as philosophy is an activity). In fact, 'the term "language-game" is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.'35 The primary feature is that 'this language-game is played' - not that 'the rules of this language-game exist.' A great danger of metaphors such as 'language-game' and 'seeing-as' is that they will be understood to suggest subliminal processes in which actions are chosen by mentally 'looking up' rules, or objects recognized through comparison with a checklist of features such as computer 'perception' uses. It is the action of playing which is basic, and not a proto-metaphysical framework of rules.36 This is an extension of the claim that 'in the beginning was the deed.' The active element of application is essential to the very nature of rules, as Wittgenstein's comments on 'going on' also claim to show.

For this reason, any attempt to treat various cultures or societies as scientific systems (that is, static sets of rules) is doomed to create [63] misunderstandings at the least. In reality, the 'rules' are subject to constant reinterpretation. Compare Kierkegaard's dictum: 'An existential system is impossible.' It is impossible partly because no codification can take all future possibilities into account. How future events will be related to the system is necessarily a matter for on-the-spot interpretation.37

A most important consequence of the examples above is that the playing of (one or more) games is only possible for people, not for theories. If various societies cannot be understood on the model of 'Hegelian' static systems, but must be understood as active and organic wholes (which at some level are not rule-governed but rule-interpretive), then the obvious point of connection and comparison between them is the individual. Deeds require doers.38 Only the individual 'player' can provide a connection between games without the need for a meta-system which describes and classifies all games. There is a large variety of ways in which we do in fact participate in more than one game. Some were mentioned above. Consider also: a chess player playing several games at once; an actor, in character, 'playing' chess in a play; the chess game in Through the Looking-Glass, a novel created by Lewis Carroll (himself created by Charles Dodgson!), and in which the pieces have personalities and are characters in a story. After these examples, the work of the simultaneous translator or the anthropologist no longer seems so unusual - which is not to say that it is less extraordinary - and the one-way trip of the religious convert begins to seem simplistic!39

In the foregoing we have traced through one problem, in an attempt to show how some interpretations of Wittgenstein's method can lead to difficulties in grasping his intentions, and the breadth of phenomena in which he was interested. We began with one heuristic device: the discussion of internal dialogues, as an example of the rejected notion 'mental process'. This device has been reified into an 'argument.' When the argument is applied systematically, it casts great doubt on Wittgenstein's appreciation for the individual. And his stress on such social phenomena as 'language-games' can easily be taken as additional evidence of this disdain. But in following Wittgenstein's own method - applying his tools to a problem, namely that of the possibility of connections between language-games or forms of life - we have seen that the individual has great importance in playing and working out these [64] games. Only when they are conceived as structured systems in which the individual is trapped do problems of relativism arise. Existing individuals feel no such bonds. To try to explain why they don't, do, or should is not appropriate - it is not a matter for explanation, but for some other kind of grasping. As Wittgenstein remarks, 'I act with complete certainty. But this certainty is my own.'40 The deed is foundational, and only individuals are capable of deeds.


A systematic answer to the question 'Is understanding religion compatible with believing?' is also at the root of a common misunderstanding of Kierkegaard's thought. Yet in this case the problem is turned upside-down. For while applying 'system' to Wittgenstein seems to make the individual subject disappear, in the case of Kierkegaard it is the social dimension which 'vanishes' in his concern with subjectivity, once again leaving the claim of total relativism. The stress on the subjective also leads to the suggestion of irrationalism.

What makes Kierkegaard particularly interesting in the context of the discussion of 'forms of life' is that he gives remarkable literary evocations of several different ways of life or language-games. The scheme of the 'stages' or 'spheres' of existence, first seen in Either/Or, is taken up again in Stages on Life's Way and used as well in the Postscript. There can be no disputing that his grasp of these stages is complete - the best witness to this being that the 'Diary of the Seducer,' one of the aesthetic sections of Either/Or, has been published separately as a serious aesthetic work.41 While this is a great compliment to Kierkegaard's skill, it is difficult to imagine a more absurd abstraction from context.

Interpretations of Kierkegaard's thought which begin from the assumption that he is a 'systematic' philosopher are far more common. One type of interpretation thinks of the stages as a fixed, almost metaphysical hierarchy.42 Another kind of interpretation takes the idea of paradox and 'irrationality' as paradigmatic of Kierkegaard's thought (or at least of his writings) and reacts to this idea.

A particularly useful facet of Kierkegaard's thought in the unravelling of these conflicting claims is his interest in the transitions between stages of existence, language-games and ways of thinking. Most of the interpretations center on static features of his work; but his own method and goals were dynamic; the method [65] was pointing, and pointing toward becoming rather than being.43

The place of the philosophically oriented pseudonymous writings (particularly the Fragments and Postscript), and the weight to be given to the 'theses' contained in them, is a disputed point. One particular school of thought is concerned to save Kierkegaard from himself. For instance, Henry Allison's strategy is to show that if Kierkegaard's 'Climacus' works really mean what they appear to say, then Kierkegaard would indeed be an irrationalist; hence it is 'obvious' that they are a peculiar and one-dimensional kind of indirect communication - parodies of serious Hegelianism.44 This interpretation is also supported by Alistair McKinnon's word-frequency studies, which show that use of the term 'Paradox' is limited to the pseudonymous works. His conclusion is that the category was not Kierkegaard's.45

Some of this confusion can be resolved by a clarification of Kierkegaard's understanding of the relative importance of logical understanding as against belief 'by virtue of the absurd.' An important part of his position is summed up this way:

Nonsense therefore he [the Christian] cannot believe against the understanding, for precisely the understanding will discern that it is nonsense and will prevent him from believing it; but he makes so much use of the understanding that he becomes aware of the incomprehensible, and then he holds to this, believing against the understanding.46

He contrasts this position with one which refutes accusations 'by remarking that it is a higher understanding.' That distinction is designed to fend off the Hegelian imperialization of religion by reason. But it also might serve as a response to charges of fideism.

It is clear that one of the most important of the various tools to be used in 'becoming Christian' is the ordinary kind of rationality. This rationality is perfectly capable of dealing with statements which abuse everyday language while pretending to be part of it, such as 'One equals three' or 'The Moon is made of green cheese.' To each of these our reply might well be 'Nonsense!'47 But no one is comfortable with such a reply when confronted with a statement like 'God is three persons in one' or the Australian Aborigine's 'The Sun is a white cockatoo.' These smack of the 'incomprehensible.' [66]

Kierkegaard clearly does not disdain rational thought. But another part of his analysis probes the limits of this 'everyday rationality' which the believer uses to distinguish nonsense from the incomprehensible. The problem is set up in terms borrowed from Lessing, who noted that 'accidental historical truths can never serve as proofs for eternal truths of the reason; and that the transition by which it is proposed to base an eternal truth upon historical testimony is a leap.'48 Kierkegaard provides conceptual support for this claim by an examination of the categories 'possibility,' 'actuality,' and 'necessity.' When historical events 'come into existence,' they go from the category of possibility to that of actuality. But necessity is a separate category - necessary things are eternal existents. The upshot of this discussion is that historical events are merely immutable; they have certainly happened but not happened certainly. In order to base reasoned understandings on them, it is necessary to appropriate them. He certainly does not wish to deny that we do appropriate them, but he does wish to point out that historical knowledge is not 'well-founded' in a strictly logical sense of the term. What is 'objectively uncertain' is 'for faith most certain.' The subjective thinker sees it as certain. In Wittgenstein's terms, 'this certainty is [his] own.'49

There is, however, a sense in which the Postscript has to do with Hegelianism. This sense relates to the idea of the 'stages' as a system. Kierkegaard's disdain for 'system' of the Hegelian type is proverbial; it would be astonishing if the stages he discusses were to form such a system.

It would be much easier to think of them under the category of heuristic (or 'maieutic') devices. What better way to 'find the reader where he is' than by showing him how he looks in a mirror! Then it will be possible to show the consequences of the reader's choices in accelerated fashion - and perhaps even to make him change his mind about those choices.

If the only existence-categories to be used are the three stages from the Stages, this heuristic scheme might not be effective for everyone. It just seems wrong to suggest that there are in the world only aesthetes, ethicists, and religious persons. Furthermore, for the project to be effective, the subjects to be 'helped' must understand themselves in the way suggested. In that case, at least one more category must be proposed. In Kierkegaard's day of popular Hegelianism (and how much more in the era of 'secular [67] humanism') there were many who saw themselves under another description: as men of reason, thinkers, even philosophers. What better way to communicate the idea of 'becoming a Christian' to these persons, than by presenting an argument which begins in reason - yet eventually shows reason's limits from inside.50 In that case the Postscript would not be a parody of Hegel, but a serious piece of philosophy - albeit with an ulterior, non-philosophical motive.51 Kierkegaard might also be forgiven in that case for using terms (such as 'paradox') which cast the problem in philosophical language. His failure to use them elsewhere need not indicate a repudiation - merely the playing of a different language-game.52

This understanding of the 'stages' parallels the suggestion made above concerning Wittgenstein's 'forms of life.' In fact, Kierkegaard's fully evolved maieutic project makes the application of Wittgenstein's ideas clear in a way which philosophical discussion cannot.

It might be pointed out (for example, by Alasdair MacIntyre) that for all Kierkegaard's insistence on the ultimate necessity for the Christian faith, nevertheless he shows no 'understanding' of it. In fact, he does not show even a grasp of it, at least in terms which those not possessed of the Christian perspective can understand. MacIntyre could say that this lack of objective rational criteria leaves Kierkegaard without a foothold from which to differentiate the form of life he recommends, let alone any arguments for adopting it. How can it be that he really has something to recommend?53

An answer to this question might be formulated along the lines of Wittgenstein's discussion of rule-following and the continuation of series. Part of the response rests on Kierkegaard's understanding of the essential importance of situation; this has ramifications distinctly similar to those of Wittgenstein's category of deed. Kierkegaard agrees that 'how a saying [ein Wort] is understood is not told by words alone.'54 He notes that

all speaking with the mouth is a kind of ventriloquism, an indeterminate something. The deception is that there is, after all, a definite visible figure who uses his mouth. But take care. Language is an abstraction.

In order for speaking actually to become human speech in a deeper sense, or in a spiritual sense, something else is required [68] with respect to being the one who speaks, two points must be determined: the one is the speech, the words spoken, the other is the situation.

The situation determines decisively whether or not the speaker is in character with what he says, or the situation determines whether or not the words are spoken at random, a talking which is unattached.55

Thus 'Christendom' is pictured as a kind of ventriloquists' convention, in which unappropriated statements of a religious kind are in the air. In this context, Christians can be known by the earnestness of their expression. Words said on Sunday must show their application during the week. The 'spy' of the Postscript seeks out examples of the ironical lack of such application in Christendom.

Kierkegaard accents this visible side of Christianity at many points in his acknowledged works. The idea central to the expression of earnestness is imitation of Christ. 'Imitation must be introduced, to exert pressure in the direction of humility. It is to be done quite simply in this way: Everyone must be measured by the Pattern, the ideal.'56 The danger - the actual event in Christendom - is that imitation is left to the 'extraordinary' person (for example, the medieval monastic), and is no longer required of all followers.57 But it is only this imitation that can distinguish Christianity from verbally similar mythology or poetry.58

It is significant that in speaking of Abraham and Job, Kierkegaard does not stress their words. Instead, he discusses and describes their actions. It is true that in the case of Job, he begins with a saying: 'The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.' 'But the expression itself is not the guidance, and Job's significance does not lie in the fact that he said it, but in the fact that he acted in accordance with it.'59 What is important about this saying is not its intrinsic richness as a doctrine - if it were, then the words might be remembered, but Job would be long forgotten - but instead Job's life as 'pattern for succeeding generations.'

The importance of conforming actions to words is stressed in a variety of other edifying discourses. The most explicit of these are based on a passage from the Epistle of James: 'But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.'60 Kierkegaard [69] remarks that 'every verbal expression is very imperfect, compared with the precision of performance.'61 The meaning of the Word is shown in the use to which it is put.

It might seem sufficient merely to name another of Kierkegaard's discourses, Works of Love. The title already suggests an external qualification of Christianity. This might appear to be at odds with Kierkegaard's demand for inwardness. But he rejects the idea that inwardness can properly be hidden.62 Works of Love explores the intricate dialectic between the inward and the outward qualifications of love's work. The tension inherent in this dialectic is made plain in the first section, on 'love's hidden life and its recognizability by its fruits.'

Kierkegaard begins by reaffirming the essentially hidden nature of the root of love. God's love is the mysterious spring of human love.63 Kierkegaard decries the 'conceited shrewdness' of positivism, which denies the unseen, and only cheats itself of the richness of life.64 In any case, a little patience will reveal an outward expression. The hidden root is to be known by its fruits. There is something to be seen!

But Kierkegaard protests against the 'miserable mistrust' which insists on seeing others' fruits. The saying that love is to be 'recognizable' is not a claim about verification, but an exhortation to be fruitful. It is a grammatical rather than a factual remark. Love's grammar differs from that of positivism; it is charitable (a work of love) to believe the best about others without demanding evidence.65 'Love's recognizability' does not imply looking at others to judge their fruits, but looking to oneself in concern over one's own fruits. To undergo this change in outlook would be a true fruit of love.

The relation between words and deeds is again addressed in the section on love as 'the fulfilling of the law.' Kierkegaard takes up a Gospel parable on the subject of promising. One brother says 'I go, sir,' but does not; the other says 'I will not,' but finally goes. The danger lies in assuming that a performative utterance is the whole performance; promising is after all a mere engagement. The fulfillment of this word in deeds is more important. Love is known by the deeds it engenders.66

Kierkegaard finds a rigorous demand for action even in the apparently mild statement, 'Be it done for you as you have believed.' On the face of it, this saying does not impose any [70] external standard of judgement on the individual - let alone a standard of action. But it is the test of the action. Certainly, it cannot serve as a standard for the judgement of others. It is one's own actions that must conform to this demand.67

All of this could be considered as an extended grammatical reflection on the status of Christendom and Christianity. Everyone knows the words. But how are they to be understood? Only one's actions can show how they have in fact been understood. The meaning of the word is shown by its usage, the inward work of love by its fruits.68

This teleological qualification of Kierkegaard's understanding of Christianity - a demand for outwardness - is powerful ammunition against the charge of subjectivism.69

Another part of the answer to MacIntyre's question involves a reminder about Kierkegaard's purpose. It must be pointed out once again that Kierkegaard's concern is the problem of 'becoming a Christian.' His specific method is to present the problem of becoming a Christian in such a way that his audience sees the necessity for this problem to be solved. It is not up to him to give a complete and anthropologically sound description of the Christian life.

But indeed there is no reason why he should be able to give such a description to his intended audience. He is trying to lead them to the point where they are living this description for themselves. He is not giving objective content, but at most pointing out the way to continue in a certain game. As Wittgenstein's remarks on rule-following suggest, this teaching is an uncertain business. What it is to become a Christian - the direction to be followed - may be pointed out. What it is to become a Christian, the experience of following that path, is forever hidden from those who have not themselves followed it. Johannes de Silentio, the author of Fear and Trembling, reports: 'Abraham I cannot understand, in a certain sense I can learn nothing from him except to be amazed.'70 Yet he has shown the possibilities inherent in Abraham's situation and decision as well as they can be rationally presented.


Kierkegaard presents a theoretical justification for his method in the Postscript: 'Dialectics itself does not see the absolute, but it leads, as it were, the individual up to it, and says: "Here it must be, that I guarantee; when you worship here you worship God."'71 [71] The beginning of a response to this final send-off is: 'Now I can go on.' Dialectical explanations come to an end sometime: there can only be the exasperated repetition of the prolegomena. What is particularly astonishing about Kierkegaard - and about Wittgenstein and other thinkers who have been able themselves to bridge the gap between language-games of especially wide separation - is the incredible breadth and depth of attempts they make to lead others to the point of grasping the essential.72 But, in a simile reminiscent of that other Johannes Climacus, Wittgenstein says:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: Anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.73

Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein have different ends in view. Wittgenstein is concerned to show the way out of theoretical muddles related to the structure of the way we see the world. Kierkegaard is concerned to show the way between two ways of viewing the world. A possibility largely latent in Wittgenstein's work, that there may be many prima facie self-consistent ways of seeing the world, is taken for granted as the basis of Kierkegaard's whole project.

One aspect which ties the applications of their methods together is a very high regard for the individual in his subjectivity. Problems which appear insoluble when they are set up as metaphysical situations in need of theory-laden 'interpretation' are handled as matters of routine by the existing individual. Only with an appreciation for this occurrence can either author's points be grasped.

The importance of the individual is likely to be forgotten in Wittgenstein's stress on the social categories of deed, language, and form of life. There is an equal danger that external aspects may be forgotten in Kierkegaard's stress on the individual's subjectivity. But both authors would agree that both aspects are necessary - for there to be appropriation, someone must appropriate something.

The maieutic method which both authors use and approve clearly demonstrates this connection of individual and social. To [72] ask an individual to see things differently presupposes both the existence of communities of thought and the individual's freedom to move between them. If anything in their work can be 'applied' in an extension of this work, such a method must surely be part of that extension. It is fitting that a tool, rather than a theory, is to be applied.

In Kierkegaard's writings the application of the regard for the individual has a clearer directionality. Everything the reader is invited to notice is pointed in one direction - toward Christianity.

Wittgenstein also has something to say about the field of religion, however. The next chapter will explore how Wittgenstein's and Kierkegaard's way of working can contribute to the study and 'understanding' of (and not merely conversion to) religion. In the course of this discussion the questions of 'fideism' and 'relativism' will be addressed more explicitly.