From Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality and Philosophical Method
1989 Charles L. Creegan
Disseminate freely with this header intact. See colophon for citation information.


Chapter Six

Now I Can Go On!

This study has reached the point at which, according to tradition, the conclusions reached ought to be presented. But it is particularly difficult to imagine 'presenting a conclusion' to a study of two figures who were concerned above all to keep their work from culminating in a 'result.' Wittgenstein once said of a student who declined to complete his dissertation that he should be given his doctorate for that act alone!1

The hunger for results, for a 'contribution to scholarship,' derives in part from the usages of science. In the scientific scheme of factual investigation, a theory resulting from one's work is stated, and that theory constitutes one's contribution.

The work of both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein is subversive of the scientific scheme. Each hoped to have made contributions. But a feature central to their projects - and thus one of their contributions - is the establishment of the possibility of contributing without presenting theoretical results.

If this possibility is to be realized, the reader must recognize a deep congruity between her task and that of the author. Both tasks are reinterpreted and considerably broadened.

One way of understanding the change in the author's task is to notice the transition from factual to conceptual investigations. This transition does not imply a lessening in the quantity of facts presented, but rather a shift in the use of these facts. They are no longer divisible into data and results. Instead they are presented as reminders, showings, and signposts in the indirect communication of conceptual clarifications.

The author does not superimpose theories (which claim to be results, newly created facts) on the world, thus solving larger [120] factual problems. Instead he makes a perspicuous connection of the facts, working out how he is inclined to 'go on' conceptually, in a therapeutic attempt to dissolve the particular problem at hand.

The reader's task also involves an attempt to 'go on.' The movements of the author are to be reduplicated. Reading becomes a training process. A successful communication would culminate in the reader's ability to continue as the author would in a variety of situations. Another level of success (quite foreign to theory-communication) might be reached when the reader convinced the author that another way of going on was preferable.

This understanding of the author and the reader as equals in conversation involves an appreciation for the immense power and complexity of language, for the nonetheless inexpressibly multi-faceted nature of the world, and for the individual who alone can make sense of it all.2 At first glance, there appear to be firm boundaries between the works of Kierkegaard, the Tractatus, and the later writings of Wittgenstein. Each of these communications works from a different body of facts. But a deep respect for the place and power of the individual constitutes a strong bond between the works.

This respect and its ramifications are perhaps best shown in the lives of the two figures. They each made an effort to be readers as well as authors of their own works. They attempted reduplication of life into works, works into life. This attempt ought to be taken seriously as a part of their communication.

A new sense of the boundaries between Kierkegaard and the 'two Wittgensteins' would be a particularly appropriate contribution to the study of these two figures. Some of the most important objects of dissolution or reinterpretation for both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are boundaries of various kinds. This is one area in which the transition from the factual to the conceptual has great impact. Factual boundaries do not seem like good candidates for change. Conceptual boundaries are much more fluid. This is not to say that they are arbitrary; they are purposive, and purposes do not remain constant.

In fact, one individual may have multiple purposes at the same time - for example, an absolute relation to the absolute telos and a relative relation to relative ends. Both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein spoke of the boundaries between schemes of thinking in ways which suggest that they conceived them as fluid and capable of superimposition. [121]

This conception has many consequences for the study of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and for larger philosophical and religious problems. The most immediate impact is that 'stages on life's way,' 'language-games' and 'forms of life' no longer need be thought of as metaphysical constructs. All were first of all heuristic or maieutic constructs. If they are to be accepted as more broadly useful ways of grasping the world and thus have continued life, they cannot be sclerosed into schemata of distinct regions, permanently separated by quasi-physical boundaries.

The implication of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein in two general problems for philosophy and religion - fideism and relativism - depends on the sclerotic understanding of these constructs. The specific charge of fideism presupposes the understanding of 'reason' - perhaps 'factual' reason - as a self-contained system, which is opposable to the equally self-contained system of 'paradoxical religion.' In this scheme, one must be either a rational scientist or an irrational fideist.

The irony of this claim is that the very term 'paradox' implies the holding fast of the collision between reason and non-reason. In itself it denies the metaphysical boundary-scheme! It simply claims that neither is sufficient when the task is life. Both are essential, but in different ways corresponding to their different possibilities. They are essential to the individual. If they were not, the paradox would never arise.

A similar reminder is in order concerning the complaint of relativism. This complaint is usually advanced by western reason when it is frustrated by the inability to make adherents of other worldviews hew instantly to its line. The complaint of fideism is generalized into an accusation of general invincibility, the possibility of cross-worldview understanding is denied, and those who suggest validity for multiple self-consistent systems are convicted of having no values.

This problem can be more productively understood in the context of maieutic conceptual communication. Grasping the multiplicity of language-games within societies which are commonly understood as single units, and the participation of individuals in various language-games, both synchronically and diachronically, yields the beginning of a dissolution of the 'problem' of cultural relativism. The fact of participation in both religion and reason by individuals is one example of this multiplicity, as are such relatively simpler examples as the use of [122] computers (and the allied technical knowledge) in the humanities. The idea of concentric accretions stands as a useful corrective to the scientific idea of linear additions.

A central feature of this new pattern is the 'task' or 'activity.' The appropriateness of concepts depends on the context. So noticing the point of actions becomes essential. There is a close relation between meaning and usage.

The 'absolutist' scientific view can be undercut by recalling the task-dependent multiple uses of such a simple term as 'exact.' Within one experiment, a scientist might note the duration of neural impulses in milliseconds and the duration of resulting activities in seconds. Neither standard of exactness would prevent her from preparing a three-minute egg using a sandglass, or arriving for dinner 'fashionably late.' In each case she might have gotten the timing 'exactly right.' Exactness is a term of praise, and not a single standard.3

The appropriateness of concepts for their contexts (which is itself a thoroughly complex notion) can profitably be extended from such simple examples to complex social phenomena such as religion and even magic. Schemes of this sort - like the scientific project of 'understanding' - propose tasks and concepts of an overarching importance. But at this level too, the meaning of one's task can only become clear in the use made of it.


It is difficult to separate recommendations aimed at philosophers from the other aspects of the two authors' work. This difficulty is true to the multi-layered and recursive nature of their task. But one possible line for extension of the present study might be suggested.

Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein have attempted to re-conceptualize the appropriateness of certain activities for religious writers and philosophers, and their respective audiences. This new proposal opens up a connection between the two fields which may easily be productive for both. It remains for the connection to be continued by other writers, and appropriated by their audiences. Such a continuation in the conceptual spirit would be viewed as a success (or at least a non-failure) by each. At a minimum, they might hope that the friction between philosophical and religious thought could produce new insights. But this possibility can only come to fruition through an appreciation for the importance of several concepts common to the two authorships. [123]

The potential in this connection derives from the possibility of transition between two conceptual schemes. The chance to see the world differently is an important step on the road to seeing the world aright.

In such a transitional situation it would be inappropriate to demand objective conformity to established rules. The point of making connections between these two games lies precisely in the opportunity offered to reexamine the rules of each. In such a vulnerable situation, the emphasis must be on 'good will.'

What here supplements rule-following and requires the exercise of good will is the process which Wittgenstein called 'going on.' The potential to make various connections between various ideas is not even latent until it has been actively tested.

Most importantly, this entire process of connection is radically dependent on the perceptions and other deeds of individual existing human beings. Transitions can only be made by people; good will is a personal mode; only individuals can go on. Even one system is lifeless without active application. Surely the juxtaposition of two games can be made clear only if it has been made in the first place. 'Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning.' This is not a limitation of systems, but an invitation to life.


The hopes of this attempt to 'go on' in the way which Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein attempted and recommended are summed up in a remark Wittgenstein made in conversation with Drury:4 'Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, "To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbour may be benefited thereby." That is what I would have liked to say about my work.'