Excursus – Wittgenstein's Anti-Scientistic Conception of Philosophy: Two Stages
Throughout his career, Wittgenstein held an anti-scientistic conception of philosophy. Rather than yielding a theory of any kind, Wittgenstein viewed the purpose of philosophy as diagnostic. In essence, Wittgenstein sees philosophy as a kind of conceptual therapy – providing us with an understanding of language that would suffice to break the spell that a misleading picture of its workings might at some particular point exert upon us. This is accomplished by shifting our understanding of the way language works to a new terrain.
Stage One – Mirroring Reality
This view of philosophy as conceptual therapy played itself out, however, in two distinct stages. When Wittgenstein first initiated what has come to be known as the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, he understood the primary function of language as implying a logical structure which mirrors, or “pictures” in speech, the structure of the external reality (or “fact”) which is being described. This mirroring is analogous, somewhat, to the notes of a musical score that represent the relationships between sounds (high, low, forte, etc.).
This meant that only cognitive statements that can be verified or falsified by reference to empiric data (such as “the snow is white”) are, in fact, the legitimate concern of philosophy. Since metaphysics, by contrast, as well as aesthetics, ethics, and even philosophy (in the traditional sense of theorizing about the “problems of life”) do not deal with empirically observable data, any cognitive statements made in these realms have no meaning in the above sense and are therefore “nonsense”.
Stage Two – “Language Games”: Putting Language in Context
In his later work, Wittgenstein continued to view philosophy as conceptual therapy, but his method for dissolving the systemic confusions that stand in the way of our understanding radically changed. His main point now was that one cannot look at the representational dimension of language alone and expect to understand what meaning is. Instead, he regarded all linguistic statements as acquiring meaning only by virtue of their use in a particular context. Language does not serve the same purpose in all contexts and there are many more kinds of things than facts that can be said.
To illustrate the diversity of discourse, Wittgenstein introduced the concepts of “language games” and “forms of life.” The different functions or substructures of language were now understood as comprising different “language games.” Such “games” are essentially goal-directed social activities for which words are just so many tools to get things done in accordance with the “grammar” of their distinctive context. They are not references to fixed and eternal components presented in a logical structure.
Each language game does a particular job, conveying certain meanings to those who participate in its particular discourse. Justification is internal to the activity of “form of life” concerned. For example, if I say: “The house is on fire,” this may be a descriptive statement in one set of circumstances, a practical joke in another, and a call to action in a third.
Given this insight, Wittgenstein gave up his earlier theory about meaning. He no longer viewed language as mirroring reality in its logical structure, but rather as functioning in a particular way in accordance with the relevant activity of its speakers in their manner of interaction with their surroundings. It is only when we get different types of discourse mixed up with one another that we are led to blunders and confusion, delegitimizing statements that may be perfectly valid in their particular sphere.
The Challenge of Wittgenstein’s Earlier Views to Religion
Although Wittgenstein wrote very little about religion, his scattered remarks on the subject inspired many attempts to approach its perplexities in a fresh and revolutionary manner. Most of these interpretive projects still reflect the contours of debate set by Wittgenstein’s earlier views. As such, their primary concern is to defend religion against the threat of empiricism and the need for verification by emphasizing the difference between statements of fact and statements of value.
On this view, religious truth statements may indeed be regarded as false or nonsensical if we insist upon understanding them as literal or even figurative representations of an external reality, but can be validated when understood existentially as referring to a level of meaning relating to the inner life of the believer. Ignoring Wittgenstein’s suggestion that “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence,” religious existentialists following this path continue to speak metaphysically. They argue that in order for a statement to qualify as religious, its metaphysical dimensions must understood as referring to precisely those subjective, personal, non-cognitive and intuitive aspects that the empiricists reject.
Indeed, most interpreters of Wittgenstein are of the opinion that even in his earlier writings, he did not mean to reject religion and metaphysics altogether. On the contrary: it was precisely because he was convinced that these areas – though not capable of ordinary linguistic expression – were of great importance in the life of man that he was led to his understanding of religious statements as relating to the mystic realm of the ineffable, beyond the reach of language.
Applying Wittgenstein’s Later Views: Religion as a Linguistic “Form of Life”
Wittgenstein’s later thought, however, which related the meaning of propositional statements to language games and forms of life has produced even more interesting and fruitful tools for validating religious doctrine. In rejecting a perception of language as a detached, logical sort of picturing of the facts, and injecting, instead, a concern for its pragmatic dimensions in supporting a “form of life,” Wittgenstein’s revised version of the relationship between language games and forms of life paved the way for an understanding of religious truth claims that abandons the duality of “facts” and “values” altogether.
Rather than establishing metaphysical facts or existential truths, religious language was now understood as a long-established manner of discourse that does a particular set of jobs, imparting its own particular “form of life” to those who participate in its “language game.” On this view, participants employing religious discourse are engaging a system of symbols that legitimate their most basic patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior.
This “form of life”, however, is not merely a set of practices. It also constructs a “picture” of reality that shapes and produces profound sentiments, attitudes, and awarenesses. Thanks to their hidden emotional power, the images, rituals and practices that this picture engenders can also perform more educational and psychological tasks, and shape social realities via their distinctive religious vocabulary.
Judging Religion by What it Engenders Rather Than What It Reflects: A Constructivist Approach
One important conclusion of this new perception of religious language is that the test of religious propositions is not the extent of their correspondence to any given reality. As opposed to conservative apologists (who still strive to find and defend the meaning of religious doctrine and narrative with reference to an external reality), or to religious existentialists (who justify the persistence of questionable religious truth claims by relegating them to a more spiritual and subjective realm), theologians adopting this constructivist approach to religious truth locate its import and significance in what it engenders rather than on what it reflects.
The justification of such discourse is internal and based on the role that it fulfills in the life of the believer, creating a unique cultural-linguistic universe, within which it makes sense to live the life of faith. In other words, rather than conveying metaphysical truths, the ultimate significance of religious language is to provide us with a context and world view that enables their formulation.
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March 25, 2014
May 13, 2023
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Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
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