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

Implications For Religion

No investigation of the positions of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein on the subject of religion can escape their fundamental asymmetry on one point: Kierkegaard was 'a religious writer,' and Wittgenstein was not. But this bald assertion about the two authors' ultimate concerns is likely to come in for important qualifications when the authorships are examined in detail.

The most obvious evidence in this case is the amount of written material devoted to the subject. On this basis the first suggestion holds true. The vast majority of Kierkegaard's work has something to do with religion, allthough he did publish pseudonymously some works that could be taken for novels and even literary criticism.

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, made public very little material which has a prima facie connection with religious issues. He gave one short paper, the 'Lecture on Ethics.' He also spoke about religious belief in a course given around the year 1938; student notes from these sessions have been published. In the manuscripts which he himself published or edited for publication, there are only a few references to religion. These include the remarks on the 'ethical' and 'mystical' at the end of the Tractatus, and scattered comments on 'theology as grammar' in the Investigations, Zettel, and other later works. Some notes culled from manuscripts on other topics have been posthumously collected as Culture and Value; this is a small volume, and by no means all of it is concerned with religion.1

Kierkegaard's ideas about authorship and the author's 'task' are germane at this point. His report on his 'point of view' gives a synoptic understanding of his works, including the ones which are not overtly religious in tone. As evidence for the appropriateness of [74] this understanding he proposes his perception of his own religious situation. Thus he is able to claim that he did not develop into a religious writer; he was always one, and the apparently non-religious works will be understood as religious when they are seen in context.

Wittgenstein also understood there to be a connection between his life and his works. This understanding has been sketched out in chapter 1. It is apparent from his biography that he had a deep personal interest in religion. Thus, in trying to decide how to apply Wittgenstein's ideas to religion, it is necessary to take into account his overall attitude toward religious phenomena; a mere counting of occasions on which they are mentioned is not enough.

Wittgenstein's self-understanding suggests that his few remarks about religion deserve to be taken seriously. But there are so few of them that not much can be made of them alone. What is more interesting is that these remarks clearly follow from the way of thinking evident in his philosophical work in general. They suggest a line along which a religious investigation might be continued.


Kierkegaard sets forward the idea that what is sought can find its expression in how it is sought. He limits the use of this idea to one specific occasion: the subjectivity of faith. Near the end of the Postscript, he remarks that the 'how of the Christian' can only correspond with the absolute paradox.2 Thus maximal subjectivity becomes objectively unique.3 In the pseudonymous literature, Kierkegaard makes considerable play from the compatibility of his subjective position (partially understood) with various basic concerns. But The Point of View suggests a particular understanding of how he has worked. Only in the light of this understanding can the overall 'what' - the point of his authorship - become clear. When the unity of his work is understood, then his aesthetic and philosophical writings can show their fullest implications.

One of Wittgenstein's sayings suggests a more general use of this method. In discussing the nature of mathematical proof, he remarks: 'Tell me how you seek and I will tell you what you are seeking.'4 What makes the application of this suggestion more difficult in this particular case is the complex nature of Wittgenstein's methods. Discovering just how he is working is itself a major task, some part of which has been attempted in earlier chapters.5 [75]

To obtain an 'objective' idea of Wittgenstein's position on religion, one would need to bear in mind his methodology and its application in general, as well as his personal interest in religion. One aspect of his methodology which will bear special watching is the appeal to the individual. Any points of unity between the earlier and later works would also be a great help.

Wittgenstein's attitude toward religion (or the type of problems for which religion is commonly a solution) is most plainly illustrated in his understanding of the Tractatus. That understanding has its clearest expression in Wittgenstein's letter to Ficker.6 There he claims that 'the sense of the book is an ethical one,' and what is important is what is not written. Furthermore (according to the preface of the book itself) the value of the work is partly that it shows how little is achieved when the problems of philosophy are definitively solved.7

What remains to be achieved beyond the solution of specific problems of philosophy is the attribution of a sense to the world. This might be a response to the experience of 'wondering at the existence of the world'; it might take the form of 'feeling absolutely safe.'8

The need to impose some order on the world is also a driving force in Kierkegaard's existential dialectic. One way in which this need is expressed is as 'anxiety.' Such anxiety is not an 'imperfection,' but rather a necessary first step. The feeling of heterogeneity is a function of the human freedom which makes Christian progress toward perfection possible.9 Kierkegaard's concern with the 'maieutic' and the category 'becoming' is partly an attempt to cause anxiety, or recognition of anxiety, in his readers. This reflects an interesting difference between his task and Wittgenstein's. For Wittgenstein, anxiety is already present in philosophy; the correct vision may alleviate it. (It is only in the task of redefining philosophy - Wittgenstein's more-or-less permanent methodological contribution - that he must first shake his readers loose from their pre-existing concepts.) But for Kierkegaard it is first necessary to create anxiety in order fruitfully to suggest the direction of Christianity.

Wittgenstein's personal feelings of inadequacy could easily be understood as an example of the kind of anxiety suggested above. But while he discusses what resolutions of philosophical anxiety would be like, it is not immediately clear what would count as a resolution of his more personal, more ethical anxiety. [76]

A distinguishing feature of all the suggestions for easing anxiety made above is that they do not have to do with any 'propositions' or descriptions of how things are in the world. 'Wondering at the existence of the world' is not like astonishment at the size of that Great Dane. The dog's size might be explained by facts concerning its breeding and diet. Such factual explanations are not available concerning the 'riddle of life.' Thus skepticism is as much a category-mistake as metaphysics - it tries to raise factual doubts where conceptual problems are encountered.10 Wittgenstein goes so far as to say that he would reject any attempt to explain religion as factually significant just because of the dimension in which the explanation is attempted.11 The 'riddle of life' is an existential problem; facts are not transparently at issue.

Kierkegaard's analysis of anxiety as a function of infinite possibilities (and the subject's realization that the possibilities are indeed infinite) trades on a similar understanding. Faith's role in bringing a practical halt to the possibilities recalls the more secular role of belief in assenting to historical facts.12 Anxiety takes a piecemeal approach to the factual possibilities, just as the skeptical attitude toward historical belief points out the various points where a 'proof' could theoretically be demanded. When anxiety or doubt is annulled, it is not merely a question of asserting one particular fact, but instead depends on a more profound change of the individual's attitude toward possibility. In Kierkegaard's explication, Abraham's actions - in a situation which could never be factually reconciled - are paradigmatic of the faithful attitude.

Wittgenstein's call for an end to explanations mirrors Kierkegaard's analysis of the historical. And Wittgenstein too sees a relation between 'historical' or everyday belief and the religious. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein calls both logic and ethics 'transcendental.' That is, neither deals with facts on the propositional level. But he suffers from the straitjacket of the attempt to explain language by the picture theory, with its attendant metaphysics. Since all language is propositional, logic (which underlies language, tying it to what is the case) and ethics (which lies beyond language and alterations in what is the case) are permanently separated. Language is 'a cage' which resists attempts to talk significantly about things outside the factual realm. Still, the thrust of this tendency 'points to something.'13

Wittgenstein's analysis of this separation in the earlier works [77] turns on a particular understanding of the possibilities of language. This understanding is mirrored in the structure of the Tractatus. Its numbered propositional form serves as a ladder. Yet the purpose of this ladder is not ascent. Rather, it is to be 'transcended.'

The Tractatus conception of the 'mystical' is connected with Wittgenstein's understanding of the self as transcendent. Only something outside the world can have a full view of it. The self marks the limit of the world. The world is mirrored in language. The self's transcendence of language implies a transcendence of the world, and the possibility of new understanding not bound by language.

A passage from the Investigations suggests a possible re-evaluation of this 'transcendence' of language.

To say 'this combination of words makes no sense' excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.14
At the time of the 'Lecture on Ethics' Wittgenstein did not remark this feature of boundaries. There he speaks of the border as having only one side. He explains the function of religious language as akin to that of simile. But he claims that the 'ethical' use of language is informed by a 'characteristic misuse.'15

A simile is an explanation of one structure by means of another. That other thing ought in principle to be describable in its own terms. For example, one might describe a tapestry as a rug hung like a picture. This description would make clear both the appearance and the construction of the tapestry. But it would also be possible to give a description in terms of the mechanics of design and weaving. This kind of description would be 'more fully analyzed.'

In the case of religion and ethics, however, the object of the simile is not describable otherwise than by the simile. Nor is this a contingent fact which is subject to remedy by further scientific [78] investigation; rather the 'simile' is in this case an attempt to use language to express something beyond the linguistically definable world. Insofar as ethics and religion are attempts to get beyond language, they are 'hopeless': they will never be scientific.

It would be possible to understand Kierkegaard's 'leap' to a 'perspective of faith' in these categories as well. Abraham was involved in a 'teleological suspension of the ethical.' If this were the complete story, the basis of the charge of 'fideism' would be reasonably clear. If religion operates beyond the limits of the definable world (in a 'suspension of the logical'), then it is necessarily inaccessible to reason. But the idea of multiple 'stages' suggests that a more complex analysis is required.

Wittgenstein's later thought is at odds with the metaphor of language as a cage. In fact, an important change in Wittgenstein's thinking seems to have occurred between December 1929 and December 1930. Two conversations held in those months are recorded. In the earlier conversation (and in the 'Lecture on Ethics' of about the same date), he expands on the idea of the cage, comparing it with Kierkegaard's category of paradox. But in the later conversation he rejects the whole conception. Instead he remarks that 'the essence of religion can have nothing to do with whether speech occurs - or rather: if speech does occur, this itself is a component of religious behavior and not a theory.'16 If language is not essential to a 'definition' of religion, then the possibility of religion could hardly be bounded by the inability to formulate a theory. Speech which is a component of religion suggests the idea of the primacy of activity explicated in the previous chapter. The roots of the religious game might indeed be inexpressible in scientific terms, just as the roots of science are, without religious life being inconsistent or ineffable.

It is interesting to note that the idea of 'running up against the limits of language' reappears in the Investigations, albeit in a different sense. Philosophy is said to discover the 'bumps' which the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language. But here what the understanding was searching for was a (propositional) meta- understanding or theory, and not a transcendental understanding in the ethical sense.17 Insofar as reason encounters barriers to its theorizing, the category of paradox is intact, at least in one sense.

In fact this understanding of the problems of reason is [79] reminiscent in form and implications of the collision between reason and the 'thing that thought cannot think' which Kierkegaard mentions in the Fragments. This is also a case of the propositional understanding attempting to assimilate the inassimilable.

If the Tractatus were recast in terms of the later categories, then the idea that logic and ethics are 'transcendental' might be translated into the assertion that they are grammatical fields. They 'tell what kind of object anything is.'18 These grammars are not explicitly laid out a priori, but they can be gathered from the ordinary uses of language.

One part of Kierkegaard's and Wittgenstein's task is the attempt to lay out some of what they have gathered about the grammar of their fields of interest. Some of these presentations relate to the place of the religious.

Various suggestions from the Investigations show how 'grammar' might take over the position filled by 'logic' in the Tractatus. 'Grammar tells what kind of object anything is'; 'Essence is expressed by grammar.'19 (To the first of these remarks Wittgenstein appends the parenthetical remark 'Theology as grammar.') Whereas in the Tractatus there is only one grammar and attempts to get beyond it can only end in hopeless running against a wall, in the context of the later works there are multiple available grammars. Wittgenstein even provides an example of a piece of theological grammar: 'You can't hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed.'20 Here the ordinary category 'speech' is modified in the grammar of religion. Whereas anyone within earshot can hear an ordinary speech, God's speeches are quite different. This statement shows part of the framework of a particular kind of religious belief. It might be a reminder, or an attempt to redefine the concepts involved. One can even imagine it being used as a purely factual statement (in a catechetical situation, for instance). At any rate it has a constructive grammatical connotation.

Wittgenstein's statements on the mystical in the Tractatus and the 'Lecture on Ethics' can also be construed as 'grammatical.'21 He is talking of mystical experience, but at the same time bounding the use of the word. No factual content can be ascribed to a 'mystical' experience. The mystical is not within the world nor is its expression within language; instead it shows itself in the existence of the world and the existence of language.22 This showing can only be felt.23 [80]

Kierkegaard is performing a grammatical task in his 'Book on Adler.' One of the constant themes of this work is that Adler is confused about the sources of his understanding. First he says that he has received a cleansing revelation, and consequently has burned all of his Hegelian treatises. As Kierkegaard remarks, this implies that he is 'an essential author,' one whose works (like Kierkegaard's) are grounded in his existence.24 But then he publishes some sermons from before the time of the revelation. Some of these are said to be partially under the influence of the Spirit. Later still, under the cross-examination of the Church, he allows less and less scope to revelation, and more to his own working-out. Now he has descended in Kierkegaard's view to the level of the 'premise-author,' who may have a different premise for each book.25

What Kierkegaard finds particularly ridiculous about Adler (and contrary to the spirit of Christianity, to say the least)26 is that he is unclear about the distinction between genius and special revelation. He could have maintained a modicum of authority and dignity if he had stuck to the idea of revelation.27 In effect Kierkegaard accuses Adler of making a category mistake - assuming that genius and revelation have enough in common to be combined (or even mistaken for each other). The clouds of Adler's confusion on this point are condensed into a drop of grammar - which is explicated in Kierkegaard's definition of authority as a qualitative difference, quite independent of the content of a message.

Furthermore there is an ethical component to the definition of the essential author. If nothing else, revelation confers an ethical requirement. In confusing revelation and genius, Adler fails in this ethical responsibility. Once authority is claimed, one cannot escape it; this is again a grammatical point.

Kierkegaard's reminder is both theoretical and practical. It distances Kierkegaard from Adler (whose projects might at first glance look similar). Kierkegaard is undoubtedly an essential author, though not one with authority. But he does not shirk the ethical dimension of his task.

Another grammatical idea in the Tractatus which relates to the later philosophy is that ethics and aesthetics are the same.28 (In the 'Lecture on Ethics' Wittgenstein repeats this assertion.) One similarity is that both are kinds of judgment which do not modify anything at the level of fact or proposition, but only something [81] 'higher' or out of the realm of propositions, that is, something 'transcendental.' But it is difficult to understand Wittgenstein's assertion that they are not merely similar, but actually the same.

A possible clue to an understanding is the obvious resemblance between this 'aesthetic' conception of ethics and the later material on 'seeing.' When the duck-rabbit is seen alternately under each of its aspects, nothing propositional has changed. The diagram serves as a proposition; the interpretation is external to it.

In the same way one object may elicit different aesthetic judgments. These do not depend on a change in the propositional description of the object; it is merely evaluated (seen) in different ways.

To say that 'ethics and aesthetics are one and the same' suggests a further extension of this process. The clear pattern of aesthetics is offered as a paradigm for ethics. Wittgenstein reminds us that when varying ethical judgments are made, propositional facts are not usually at the center of the dispute. The interpretation of these facts, or how they are seen, is crucial.

Wittgenstein makes yet another extension of the concepts involved here when he makes 'wonder at the world' an expression of ethics. This suggests not merely a series of disconnected decisions on ethical issues, but a whole way of living, unified in some sense by a quasi-aesthetic understanding of the facts.

Wittgenstein's remarks on color are illuminating here. He discusses the phenomena of contextuality as they apply to the painter's choice of pigment. He remarks on the difficulty in saying exactly what color-impression certain particular patches of paintings give - for instance, the iris of an eye.29 As he notes, although there is such a thing as gold paint, Rembrandt did not use it in painting The golden helmet.30

So the understanding of ethics as 'the same' as aesthetics is not idiosyncratic, but a forerunner of Wittgenstein's later understanding of the phenomena of contextuality. He is remarking (proposing?) a grammatical similarity between the two fields.

This understanding of ethics is echoed by Kierkegaard's analysis in Either/Or of the inadequacy in the traditional 'ethical' life of Judge William. His duty-based ethics are doomed to failure because, as an existing individual, he will be unable to satisfy the absolute standard on a case-by-case basis. This is made abundantly clear by the sermon included at the end of the work, which [82] explicates the edification in the idea that 'in relation to God we are always in the wrong.' The ethicist thinks in terms of individual duties. But the infinite multiplicity of these duties must overwhelm him in anxiety. The only possible salvation from this wave of duties is a shift in perspective. The endless stream of duties can only be faced with faith's 'inner certainty.'31

When the ethical is removed from the propositional realm, the possible consequences of an ethical decision seem to be removed from this realm as well. Ethical laws in the traditional sense clearly presuppose (or at least strongly suggest) rewards and punishments. But if ethics is not within the world, it would be odd for its consequences to be in the world. If there are to be consequences of good or bad ethical willing, they will not be propositionally expressible.32 (A conceptual problem with a conceptual solution will surely have conceptual consequences.)

What kind of non-factual effect could ethical willing have? Wittgenstein speaks of the world 'waxing and waning as a whole,' but another phrase he uses is more accessible. 'The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.'33 This idea connects with the aesthetic view of ethics (and thus with the later material). The happy man sees the world under a different aspect from the unhappy man. This need not suggest any complete doctrinal understanding, merely that clarity which comes with complete disappearance of the problems.34 This disappearance is not piecemeal answering, but vanishing of life's problems.35 The answer makes itself manifest (zeigt sich). This understanding of the world in its totality is what Wittgenstein calls the 'mystical.'

This conception of the difference between the happy and the unhappy man is given substance in Kierkegaard's description of the difference between the 'Knight of Faith' and the ordinary person. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard recounts a meeting with the perfect Knight of Faith. 'Good lord, is this the man, is this really the one - he looks just like a tax-collector!'36 There is no temporal indication that this might be a particularly religious person, no propositional difference. But the Knight of Faith has a personal confidence. He is ready to partake of the world at its fullest - a fine meal, or even a capitalistic scheme - but if these possibilities should fall through, it will be quite the same to him. His is the world of the happy man, and whatever the accidental facts of his life he remains a happy man. He views the world from a 'perspective of faith.' [83]

The idea of possibilities is further articulated in Kierkegaard's remarks on Abraham. Abraham had neither surrendered Isaac nor wilfully retained him. His faith sustained an 'absurd' certainty that all would be well even though Isaac had been required of him.37 This unrestrictive attitude toward what might seem to be mutually exclusive possibilities might well be cited as an example of the 'waxing as a whole' of the world of the happy man.

It is essential to notice that the difference in these happy men is not a purely inward qualification. It is not expressed propositionally; one may still look like a tax-collector. But there are consequences for the individual's relations with the world. The perspective of faith is a locus of action and not merely of vision.

The idea of a shift in perspective is clearly evident in the Tractatus material about 'the vanishing of the problem' and 'seeing the world aright.'38 A new understanding, compatible with the idea of 'language-games,' is ushered in by the 1930 assertion that 'language is not a cage.' The possible uses of language are extended substantially. Wittgenstein also continues to reject the idea of a meta-system which can account for these shifts in perspective. But consistent language-use with its own rules is allowed for on both sides of the gap.

Once again this partial understanding could be seen as complete. But once again the problem of fideism arises, joined this time by the problem of relativism. If it is only a question of various self-contained 'games,' then again faith must shun reason. What remains to be shown is that the 'games' are open to interaction.


One of the secular phenomena which Wittgenstein consistently uses to show the presence of various forms of life even within the standard western society is the coronation. Such a ceremony does not have a purpose in the sense of financial transactions or scientific experiments. Nevertheless it has its own rules and its own importance within the everyday world. It is not 'wrong.'39 This might be a simile for religious actions.

Confusion may arise because the forms of religious language - the surface grammar - may seem to be like that of some other kind of language. (A coronation is built around the everyday action of putting on a hat. Many neighbors of the early Christians had prima facie adequate reasons to suppose they practiced cannibalism.) But the deeper grammar of religion has a different slant. For instance, Christianity [84]

offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don't take the same attitude to it as you do to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.40
Wittgenstein suggests that the proper attitude to take is 'the attitude that takes a particular matter seriously, but then at a particular point doesn't take it seriously after all, and declares that something else is even more serious.'41 It is hardly surprising that one might be confused about such a demand.

Kierkegaard's examination of the historical situation of Christian claims is addressed to this confusion. His understanding turns on the idea that the importance of Christian historical claims is quite different from that of ordinary historical claims. It has the ordinary significance and a further dimension. Ordinary historical belief (suspension of skepticism) is required in the case of belief in the historical existence of the man Jesus of Nazareth. (Kierkegaard's insistence on this point is good evidence that he is not a fideist.) But the importance of His existence is not merely that of historical research. Rather, the importance lies in the claim that He is the 'eternal essential Truth.' The evidence on which this is to be believed is far more scant that the evidence of Wittgenstein's interest in religion! The problem is that the claim does look like an ordinary historical claim, albeit an extravagant one: 'The Son of God walked among us as a man.'

Nevertheless there are clues to the proper understanding of the demand to accept this claim, if one is willing to find them. It is a question of examining the surroundings of the expression. 'How words are understood is not told by words alone.'42 It is only in the context of the application that one can understand the meaning of a word. Wittgenstein provides the clever example of a logarithmic system of measurement, related to the English in that '1 W' = 1 foot - but '2 W' = 4 feet, '3 W' = 9 feet, and so on! Now, do 'This stick is 1 foot long' and 'This stick is 1 W long' really mean the same?43 Only in the context of the respective systems does either sign make sense; when we try to compare them directly we are at a loss.

Wittgenstein declares himself to be at a loss in this sense when [85] he is confronted with truth-questions about the religious worldview. He remarks that he understands all of the words used in describing the Judgement Day. But he is still not in a position to affirm or contradict assertions concerning its occurrence. And when he is asked about the relation between believers and non-believers, he replies: 'My normal technique of language leaves me. I don't know whether to say they understand one another or not.'44

A first step out of this dilemma is to realize that an attempt to categorize poetic (or religious) language in factual terms is doomed to failure. We must not forget that 'a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.'45 What is interesting is that we are tempted to forget this. It might be easier to come to terms with something factually very different. No one would be surprised if some extra-terrestrial beings had a form of life very different from ours. What is astonishing is that human beings may be so different that one may hold a scientific worldview and another a religious one. 'Concepts other than though akin to ours might seem very queer to us; deviations from the usual in an unusual direction.'46 And indeed they do seem queer. As Wittgenstein points out, concepts basic to scientific studies and those used in religion cut across each other at an angle. Scientific beliefs should be 'well established.' But the religious believer treats his beliefs as 'well-established' in a way, but again distinctly not so.47

Wittgenstein's conception of religion survives the change in his concept of language and philosophy. The language in which it is talked of changes, however. In the 'Lecture on Ethics' he discusses the possibility that scientific investigation could debunk miracles. He suggests that this is impossible. In science there can only be facts, some of which have not yet been subsumed under the scientific system. So 'it is absurd to say "Science has proved that there are no miracles." The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle.'48 Wittgenstein would certainly not have disagreed with this statement in his later period.

The difference is that in the later philosophy, this other way of looking is not 'beyond language' - although there is something resistant to language about the transition between ways of looking. The experience of the world as a mystical whole is not good scientific evidence. Miracles are not believed on scientific evidence. [86] But this belief is not a 'blunder.'49 It is too far different from science, while seeming strangely the same. Religious concepts are 'deviations from the usual in an unusual direction.' They seem akin to ordinary ways of speaking in form; but they run in different directions. Wittgenstein cites the difference between 'possibly there is a plane overhead' (which is fairly near to 'there is a plane') and 'possibly there is a Last Judgement' (which is very far from the belief-stance 'there is a Last Judgement.')50 The 'grammar' of this statement is tied up with the very different ways of verifying and using it.


The separation of religion from the categories of science suggests that the essence of religion is not some system. In fact, Wittgenstein himself separates the categories of system and religion repeatedly in the fragments collected as Culture and Value. In one set of remarks he talks about doctrine and passion.

I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.)

It says that wisdom is all cold; and that you can no more use it for setting your life to rights than you can forge iron when it is cold.

The point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you; you can follow it as you would a doctor's prescription. - But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction. - (I.e. this is how I understand it.) Once you have been turned round, you must stay turned round.

Wisdom is passionless. But faith by contrast is what Kierkegaard calls a passion.51

Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein both see an interesting isomorphism or family resemblance between the passion required for faith and the inspiration required to 'go on' even in science. For at one level, even a historical assertion is not 'well-founded.' And a doctrine cannot be grasped without some extra-doctrinal understanding and commitment: 'Now I can go on!' One can follow a doctor's prescription, or a timetable; but the method of following is not completely specified by the written matter. In these cases, neither Kierkegaard nor Wittgenstein would be inclined to claim that the [87] commitment is a conscious one. Kierkegaard calls faith the 'organ of the historical'; it is an inevitable part of that kind of apprehension. Wittgenstein claims that the very idea of doubting some foundation 'facts' is merely a grammatical misunderstanding.

It seems that the case of religion requires another level of grasping. In that case, going through the motions is not enough; being able to go on is not sufficient. Many basic forms of life 'stand fast,' as Wittgenstein says; but there is something slippery about religion. Kierkegaard asserts that the 'stumbling block' of religion is quite intentional. He claims that religious belief must be 'held fast.'

Part of the added dimension is expressed by Wittgenstein in his remark that religious instruction ought to include an 'appeal to conscience.'52 This would surely be a stronger appeal than the appeal to reasonable consistency of the person giving instruction in the application of a mathematical formula.

It is hard to make this suggestion square with Wittgenstein's own methods of instruction. Rather (since his objectives in instruction were not wholly religious or ethical), it is hard to see how under his categories an 'appeal to conscience' could have any tangible form. A certain understanding (view) of the facts might grab one's conscience; but understanding in this sense cannot be imparted. Kierkegaard explicitly suggests that such an appeal would be doomed to failure for practical reasons, because it would be viewed as obnoxious by the person appealed to. Still, the idea of such an appeal 'points to something.' Perhaps it might be just an urging to accept the picture presented at a level deeper than that of abstract thought.53 This level might be manifest as 'always appealing to the picture' or 'always thinking of it.'54

Kierkegaard's idea of 'reduplication' has a similar import. 'To reduplicate is to be what one says.'55 There is a certain kind of reduplication involved in the learning of some mechanical competence; but true reduplication is a phenomenon of the ethical and religious.56 While competence in mathematics, for example, relates both to logic and to subjective appropriation, 'Christianity is related neither to thinking nor to doubt, but to will and to obedience; you shall believe. Wanting to take thinking along is disobedience, no matter whether it says yes or no.'57

One certainly could classify religion as a 'form of life' or 'language game,' in a quasi-metaphysical understanding of these [88] terms, although this would lead inevitably to accusations of 'relativism.' The idea of 'stages' suggests such a conceptualization. But these last passages suggest that religion considers itself to be at another level. Christian religion in Kierkegaard's understanding claims to be unique - the only right way of looking at the world. But Wittgenstein's scheme of language-games militates against the possibility of one worldview with a privileged position. This appears to be a serious difference between the two authors. But there are clues to a rapprochement.


In this context it is worth remembering that the 'stages' do not constitute a metaphysical scheme. They are not completely separate. Rather, they are linked by the continuity of the individual who passes along 'life's way.' This phrase suggests a linear metaphor, and the inevitable separation of the points along the line. Either/Or's Judge William proposes a better metaphor, that of successive layers. He claims that the aesthetic remains within the ethical, transformed by a superadded 'concentric' shell.58 And for the Knight of Faith, aesthetic and ethical categories reappear, transformed, in paradoxical religion.

Wittgenstein's 'forms of life' and 'language-games' are also non-metaphysical. The scope of their application is left deliberately vague. Fergus Kerr argues that this scope is bounded,and that nothing as complex and articulated as a religion is the subject of this kind of analysis. It tends to turn on small distinctions.59 But of course the fundamental differences between the Christian and the non-Christian are not so large regarded factually, the principal dispute being a question of heredity. Surely this is no more complex a difference than a different color-system (which is the example Kerr uses), and surely in both cases the consequences of the difference for everyday life are potentially enormous!

The Tractatus analysis of the 'ethical' and 'mystical' suggests the possibility of paradoxical religion outside the categories of human grasping, and hence of a unique kind. The 'absolutely hopeless' running against the walls of our cage is explicitly linked to Kierkegaard's category of 'paradox' by Wittgenstein. He does not focus on the frustration, but on the repeated thrust against the limits, which, he says, 'points to something.'60

The situation is apparently changed when Wittgenstein rejects the metaphor of the cage. The idea that religion might be a 'form [89] of life' is sufficient to give the 'thrust' of religion a place of its own in which to be self-consistent; it no longer must suffer as a misshapen appendage of logically pure language. So 'paradox' is no longer necessary; and apparently religion is no longer unique.

This is perhaps a good place to invoke the idea, mentioned in chapter 2, that the later Wittgenstein is not always the best interpreter of his early writings. The idea of 'paradox' need not reflect the permanent and absolute relations between two language-games or forms of life. Indeed, Kierkegaard's use of the term is not in this vein. Rather, for him it is a transitional category which arises from the inadequacy of the old language game to the task at hand, and goads the individual into a closer examination of the new language game. Kierkegaard's explication of the position of the 'spontaneous believer' gives a good statement of his understanding of the dialectics of this situation. What the spontaneous believer (in 'Religiousness A') cannot understand is that what is for him obvious and certain is for others the paradox. But Kierkegaard allows that for the integrated, reduplicated believer (the true Christian, believing the absurd by virtue of the absurd) this dialectical situation is obvious in all its tension - and nevertheless livable.61

Wittgenstein's thoughts in this area center on the different ways of 'proving' involved in science and religion. 'Proof' in science has a lot in common with Kierkegaard's 'little cartesian dolls' - the form of the proof is rationally completed, but in order for it to come into force, one must have done with proving, 'let go' of the proof.62 In science, Wittgenstein allows, there are proofs, but the individual to whom the proof is addressed must eventually see the proof as complete. Explanations end somewhere.

Already in this scheme of proof there is a hint of tension. If it is a matter of 'seeing the proof as complete,' 'coming to an understanding,' there always remains the possibility that one may lose the new understanding. As long as one has the experience 'Now I see!' this tension continues. But understanding changes rapidly from an activity to an ability, from happening to latency. Then the tension is removed, and sometimes great force is needed to renew it.

'Proof' of God's existence does not proceed the same way - or if it does, it is doomed to failure as a convincer. Wittgenstein remarks that a proof of God's existence ought to serve to convince one that God exists. That is what the surface grammar of the [90] expression suggests. The model here would be geometrical proof: 'I will prove to you that there is no such thing as the trisection of an angle with ruler and compass.' But he suggests that reasoned proofs of God's existence are merely attempts by believers to 'give their "belief" an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.'63

The reason for this is that the desire for 'proof of God's existence' is not a request for a causal explanation; instead, it is a demand for the justification of an attitude. Both the search for the answer and the result of finding the answer are only expressible in terms of an individual's life. So the answer must be something having to do with the form of a life. As Kierkegaard remarks, God becomes a necessary postulate, but not in the usual sense; rather, 'the individual's postulation of God is a necessity.'64

Kierkegaard is also concerned to show that intellectual proofs are existentially inadequate. His crusade against nominal Christianity stresses the idea of appropriation.

His exposition of this idea proceeds in two directions. One of these trades on the point that even 'purely objective' understandings must have some subjective content, 'for not only is he mad who says what is meaningless, but quite as certainly, he who expresses a correct opinion, when this has absolutely no significance for him.'65 Two parallel examples might illustrate this point: Kierkegaard's madman, who feigns sanity by incessantly repeating 'Bang, the earth is round';66 and Wittgenstein's talking lion, whose utterances we could not understand.67 Only in the flow of a connected form of life, which can only be an individual life (that of an individual in his subjectivity), can objective expressions have meaning.

The second direction in which Kierkegaard's exposition proceeds is from the side of personal need. Christianity's basic claim is of an extreme improbability. Why should anyone believe it? The reason which Kierkegaard supplies is that the potential existential importance of this claim is immense. In effect, if it is 'true' it eliminates (not solves) the 'riddle of life.' It abrogates the problem of finitude, which is the highest and final problem for any contingently existing being.68 This problem is so important that one has no choice but to grab at the solution.

Wittgenstein suggests that a wholly different kind of instruction [91] is operating in coming to a belief in God. The kind of understanding which this instruction promotes is a wholly different kind of understanding from the seeing of any single thing.

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

So perhaps it is similar to the concept of 'object.'69

The suggestion of the last sentence is very helpful. For Wittgenstein the concept of 'object' is a complex one. It is certainly useful, but it cannot be reduced to any metaphysical or observational definition.70 It is almost paradigmatic of the foundational, but nonetheless 'not-well-founded' concept.

This association is consistent with his remarks about the status of religious belief in the lectures on religious belief. There the believer's view is said to show itself 'not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in all his life [sic].'71 Christianity rightly understood is a 'firmly rooted [not proven] picture,' and in this sense has more to do grammatically with superstition than with scientific fact. For this reason, all philosophy written about it (under the assumption that it is founded at a higher level of gaming) is doomed to reach false conclusions.72

Kierkegaard goes further along the same line, claiming that religious life is radically grounded. So it could hardly be an occasion for giving grounds. The religiously aware self 'rests [is grounded] transparently in the Power that established it.'73

Citing the grammatical similarity of religion and superstition as against the grammar of fact is not of course to suggest that they are similar in application. Wittgenstein remarks an obvious difference: superstition is a sort of 'false science' (an untrue causal nexus) whereas religion depends on trust and at important junctures rejects the causal nexus.74 In this dimension superstition is more similar to science than it is to religion. But that only goes to show that the three ways of thinking cannot be subsumed under a system. [92]

One way in which religion might claim to be unique is that it lacks much of the superstructure of ordinary language-games. Or rather, the superstructure exists, but it is not essential to the continuation of the category. Science has not only a way of looking at the world, but empirical methods and data derived from this basic belief-structure. One cannot 'do science' without both the way of looking and the experimental method. The religious or 'ethical' way of looking at the world provides a basic way of understanding things, but leaves the actual activities (to be informed by this way of looking) unspecified. A scientist is always called a scientist, but only 'does science' when he is actually experimenting, lecturing, and so forth. A religious believer is always a religious believer, and cannot choose to continue or stop 'doing religion.'

In other words, the tension involved in the transition to religion does not go away. The religious seeker or believer remains at the stage of activity, and does not attain comfortable latency.

Kierkegaard's categories of 'mystery' and 'paradox' turn on this continuation of activity. The religious believer is living in two worlds at once. She has regard to two grammars, the everyday grammar of the world and the grammar of religious faith. These two grammars are not fully separate, but 'cut each other at an angle.' Either might 'stand fast' in latency; but to keep the two in tension requires the believer to 'hold fast.' Such an existence in tension, with an 'absolute relation to the absolute telos and a relative relation to relative ends,' is paradoxical.

Wittgenstein's understanding of the connection of ethics, life, and philosophical investigations is an example of a similar tension. Unlike Hume, who could put away his reflections on the ill-foundedness of causal connection in order to go to dinner, Wittgenstein could not put away his philosophy. It informed his everyday life, and he disliked intensely the type of philosophers whose philosophy did not do so. The idea that philosophy and religious life are activities (and not bodies of doctrine) leads to this entanglement with 'conscience.'

This suggests another facet to the phenomenon of religion: the religious belief-scheme can be added on to other schemes. There are, for example, religious physical scientists. There could hardly be superstitious physical scientists.

Because of its unique status, religion cannot be completely [93] separated from the ordinary world. For instance, the explanatory language of religion owes a lot to the language of ordinary life.

Could you explain the concept of the punishments of hell without using the concept of punishment? Or that of God's goodness without using the concept of goodness?

If you want to get the right effect with your words, certainly not.75

Anyone who has received a certain sort of education can understand what is going on in religious truth-claims, in a sense. Of course, the language of religious convincing, which is aimed at the non-believer, must be pitched in terms which the non-believer can understand. Otherwise, the 'effect' will be lost. But this is merely another expression of the tension between the believer and the world.76

Wittgenstein's 'ethical' concern can be explicated in terms of the special status of religion. His concern would not be to eliminate science or even philosophy. Rather it would be to make the 'mystical' understanding part of the perspective. Since this understanding is at the most basic level (as fundamental as the concept 'object,' if not more so) it need not conflict with any factual information. Given the opportunity to 'see the world aright,' an individual may come to a better understanding of all facts.

This presents an added reason why the idea of any religion as a 'system' must be rejected. The very idea of 'system' is a category of scientific thought. To present 'system' or 'understanding' as an absolute is to make a category- mistake.

There is of course a way in which the 'mystical' way of living is demonically aped. This is the 'scientific' trap of the 'loss of deep problems.' Where the 'mystical' rests on a sublime confidence in the dissolution of all such problems, this false consciousness has a ridiculous confidence in their non-existence. It is interesting to note that Wittgenstein quotes in this connection a saying from Augustine: 'quia plus loquitur inquisitio quam inventio,'77 which parallels one of Kierkegaard's favorite mottoes, 'attributable to Lessing:' 'If God held all truth in His right hand, and in His left the lifelong pursuit of it, he [Lessing] would choose the left hand.'78 This accentuates that the essence of religion lies in the form of the religious life, and not in the factual content nor in the 'results' (scientifically understood) of that life. [94]

Even in the context of Wittgenstein's later understanding of the relation of language-games, then, there is at least one feature of religion that remains unique, or at least highly unusual. This is the religious individual's intentional maintenance in the tension of multiple language games - because she participates in one particular game, the religious, which looks over the shoulder of all others. The tension inherent in the religious position is magnified in that the game itself demands a paradoxical openness to change.

If there is another language-game that makes similar demands, it is philosophy. The philosopher also applies the toolbox which constitutes her specialty in an examination of other games. Wittgenstein's persistent understanding of the connection between philosophy and lived ethics finds itself justified by this point. But philosophy and religion diverge in one essential way: the key to philosophy is ability to stop doing it;79 whereas the key to religion is inability to stop doing it. When the metaphysical framework of worldviews first suggested by the idea of the 'stages' or 'language games' is rejected, and this multiplicity of levels of grasping substituted, then there is no problem admitting the usefulness (and at the same time inadequacy) of reason for religion. The problem of fideism will not be solved, but dissolved.


In the course of unravelling Wittgenstein's position on the question of religion (and enlightening Kierkegaard's), we have uncovered two ironies. First of all, Wittgenstein's earlier and later positions seem remarkably unified on this question. Certainly Wittgenstein always understood there to be an essential connection between his earlier and later work. He wanted to have the Tractatus and the Investigations published together. Nor could this be entirely because the later work served as a mere appendix of corrections to the earlier. It points out fundamental errors in some underlying assumptions, but what Wittgenstein called the 'point of the book' (the material on the ethical and the mystical) goes unchallenged. In fact, the framework of the later understanding is more felicitous to the ethical points! To use Kierkegaard's terminology, it has become clear that Wittgenstein is not a 'premise-author.'

The second irony uncovered is that Kierkegaard, 'a religious writer,' and Wittgenstein, 'not a religious writer,' are close enough on key points that (at the very least) examples from each lend support to the understanding of the other. There is now no way of [95] knowing how much of the material on religion collected in Culture and Value, which has a distinctly 'Kierkegaardian' ring, was directly influenced by Wittgenstein's reading of Kierkegaard. Certainly it is not merely parroted, but is further developed. What is more interesting is that the whole scheme of Wittgenstein's later works lends itself to congruity with a Kierkegaardian analysis of religion.

This compatibility of Wittgenstein's work with religion ought to have been foreseen. Even though he did not feel a religious vocation in any conventional sense, nevertheless his own personal feeling of need in this direction informed his philosophical work. It might even be suggested that his stress on the individual appropriation of facts is based on an ethical pattern. Ethical decisions cannot be forced on the individual; they must be freely made. His understanding of the importance of the ethical led inevitably to a philosophical conception in which such free acceptance is not only possible but necessary.80

The conception of religion suggested above has important consequences for possible positions on some of the most important arguments in philosophy of religion. One such argument is theodicy.

Theodicies tend to depend either on metaphysical points or on epistemologies. That is, either evil is justified as metaphysically inevitable, or it is denied as a false perception following from men's limited understanding. (Many theodicies have strands of both types). Classically, at least in the West, factual (propositional) arguments are used and general solutions are proposed.

The understanding promulgated by Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein demands a shifting of the ground of the argument. In keeping with their way of working, conceptual revisions might be suggested and the dimension of personal acceptance stressed. Wittgenstein's 'world of the happy man' and Kierkegaard's 'perspective of faith' are both implicit theodicies. They constitute dissolutions (vanishings) of the problem of evil.81 At the same time, the tension implicit in the religious person's participation in the world ensures that the problem remains essential.

The appeal to the individual is a particularly important factor here. Many theodicies fail to take it into account, with the result that they cannot as effectively address the very personal nature of evil as a life-experience.82 Wittgenstein's remark that 'proofs' of God are not the reasons or causes for their authors' belief in God [96] stands as a pointer in the direction of more existential theodicy.

Finally it is worth noting that Wittgenstein's position on religion has consequences for his 'relativism.' It has been said that relativism is a position at which Wittgenstein arrives quite consciously, and not one which he falls into or begins from unconsciously.83 His stress on the ethical - his form of religion - suggests a modification of the idea that he is a relativist. The ethical as a superadded form of life would provide grounds for the selection of language- games. As such it would act to limit relativism. This is not to say that everyone will share in this form of life. But here Wittgenstein is 'leaving everything as it is.' Relativists do exist. And relativism is surely not a mistake about facts, but a question of interpretation. So relativists must be shown the path to ethics. Wittgenstein might well subscribe to Kierkegaard's claim that the existential value of holding the 'ethical' or religious worldview is a substantial inducement to accept it.

Granted that this is not a form of metaphysical absolutism. But the form of relativism it is intended to combat is not metaphysical either. It is an absolutism of values aimed at making sense of the maze of existential possibilities and problems. What drives it is the absolute value of the individual's life. The standard which the 'ethical' upholds is the value for the individual's life.84 The postulation of this existential either/or is the closest that either Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein will come to admitting a metaphysical certainty for existing beings.