Thursday, 2 October 2014

What is the problem to which Christianity is the answer? The example of Wittgenstein

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I was reading the posthumous collection of Wittgenstein's aphorisms called Culture and Value yesterday - focusing on the references to Christianity across his whole adult life, in the midst of an exceptionally prolonged and severe migraine and its treatment - so I was in a particularly intense and peculiar frame of mind.

For the first time, it struck me as obvious that Wittgenstein was a serious and sincere 'seeker' by Pascal's definition, hence Wittgenstein certainly was (in an ultimate sense) A Christian - despite that there was probably no time in his life when he could or would have stated : I Am A Christian.

This is a new understanding for me because I was introduced to Wittgenstein by the the ultra-liberal Christian-apostate Don Cuppitt - who, I now perceive, was selectively misrepresenting W to be arguing for a non-realistic, 'as if', culturally-embedded, way-of-living such as Cuppitt believed-in (before he abandoned even this vestige). I also encountered Wittgenstein via Richard Rorty, who was the epitome of urbane, bland, self-contradictory Leftist postmodernity. Indeed, all the books I read about W were from this subjectivist, relativist, politically-correct perspective - even one by a Dominican Friar (this will surprise nobody who knows what they are like).

But looking across the sweep of C and V, it is crystal clear that W was thinking and writing about real Christianity, and not the Leftism-in-disguise fake of the modern mainstream churches. Indeed, it is striking how very 'reactionary' Wittgenstein was - given that he became the darling of progressive academics and radical artists (or, at least, they took what they wanted from W and left-behind what W regarded as most important).

I found many passages were striking, in my peculiar state of mind - some seemed to be misunderstandings, for example in relation to miracles, others seemed to get at the root of things.

Page 49e Para 3 from 1946:

In former times people went into monasteries. Were they stupid or insensitive people? - Well, if people like that found they needed to take such measures in order to be able to go on living, the problem cannot be an easy one!

For W the problem was not an easy one, it was indeed the need for an ultimate underpinning. He recognized that this was not a matter of logic. He also - in practice, for constitutional reasons which he could not overcome - could not join any human association - hence could not be a member of a church. All this made it difficult for W to know what he was, or what to do about it.

I think what was probably needed for him was to understand that faith of the kind he wanted and needed is based in a personal 'testimony', on experience - which can come from miracles, revelations or in prayer - and this really is the bottom line. To look to validate the testimony by other means, is to destroy the testimony.

Wittgenstein knew what faith was not based-on, but I think he never knew what it was based-on. Probably because none of the churches he encountered put this up-front, all had very different emphases.  

In the end this will not have affected Wittgenstein's salvation - that was assured by his sincere and prolonged seeking for God - but it did mean that W never got beyond the threshold of Christianity, never progressed far on the path of theosis.

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5 comments:

Nathan said...

Dr. Charlton,

I'm glad to see that you've come around a bit on Wittgenstein! It was my impression before (rightly or wrongly) that you viewed him a bit more as a dubious dialectician than as a serious thinker/religious seeker, and I always felt a bit uneasy about this, especially after reading so much, not specifically about his thoughts, but about his life.

You say in your post:

"For [Wittgenstein] the problem was not an easy one, it was indeed the need for an ultimate underpinning. He recognized that this was not a matter of logic. He also - in practice, for constitutional reasons which he could not overcome - could not join any human association - hence could not be a member of a church. All this made it difficult for W to know what he was, or what to do about it."

and also:

"Wittgenstein knew what faith was not based-on, but I think he never knew what it was based-on. Probably because none of the churches he encountered put this up-front, all had very different emphases.

In the end this will not have affected Wittgenstein's salvation - that was assured by his sincere and prolonged seeking for God - but it did mean that W never got beyond the threshold of Christianity, never progressed far on the path of theosis."


These points reminded me of a discussion between Wittgenstein and Dr. Bieler, which occurred sometime shortly before Wittgenstein went to the front lines during WWI. During this discussion, Wittgenstein said to Bieler that he would make a good disciple but that he was no prophet. Bieler later wrote of Wittgenstein that he appeared to be the opposite: that he had all the characteristics of a prophet, but none of a disciple. I find this assessment, overall, to be quite true, and it's an interesting distinction. I wonder to what extent the distinction is spiritual vs psychological.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathan

Wittgenstein was bad for me when I was reading him intensively in the mid-1980s, and I think the great bulk of work done in his name has been harmful.

Really, W does not do well in the role of Great Philosopher - if indeed anyone does. But if W is used as a basis for techniques, as he was - twice - in academic British philosophy (once for Tractatus and the Logical Positivists and again for Phil Invest and the Linguistic analysis mob), then the results are appalling.

Then again, the intelligentsia who revere W in a postmodern/ relativistic mode (plus those numbskulls who admire him purely because of his eccentric lifestyle and sexual preferences) have also served him ill.

Indeed, the hushed, guru cult sustained by his executors did not do his memory any favours either!

To top it all, I went to a really dreadful, pretentious, shallow, glib lecture by Ray Monk - the biographer - which put me off both Monk and W at a stroke!

But as I get distance on my earlier misguided infatuation, and the bad interpreters, and from my earlier semi-professional involvement with philosophy - I think I may be able to return to him, and take him for what he was - unmediated.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathan - I wouldn't say W was either a disciple or a prophet! I don't think he got far enough as a Christian to be either. I would think his main value would be in evangelism among intellectuals - as a way-into the faith (how to do it, what to look for); but not as a guide once you are inside.

anarchopapist said...

It is rumored he had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism, but then that rumor seems to surround anyone of sufficient eccentricity cf. Oscar Wilde. To my understanding, he is best understood as continuous with Aristotle; his role at Oxford had the unfortunate effect of making all his interpreters presume his project was more continuous with that of Bertrand Russell's. The "expositions" of his work by philosophers such as Anscombe and Kripke basically mangle his work and leave it in that seemingly postmodern dreck.

Then again, of course I interpret him through my own understanding of the project of philosophy. I found him so striking because the Tractatus appeared to deal with exactly the meta-problem of philosophy I hadn't been able to articulate [undergraduate student at the time]. The rest of his work pursues the same approach, and his fixation on language makes a lot more sense when you drop the generally analytic idea of language being a means of transmitting ideas, but of influencing our own and others' behavior. In fact, I believe that properly understood his analysis is a very strong grounds of metaphysics, completely contrary to the logical positivists who took themselves to be continuing his project! [He informed them of just this when he attended a Vienna Circle meeting, and his choice to speak about poetry is a lot more suggestive in this light.]

I know I hype Wittgenstein up a lot, but I do honestly believe there is a Catholic synthesis of his work waiting to be achieved, just as Aquinas did for Aristotle and Augustine for Plato.

Personally, I believe The Blue and Brown Books capture his best ideas and most clearly illustrate the problems he is dealing with, which is the focus of neither the positivists nor the ordinary language philosophers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ap - My understanding is that W. had a Catholic funeral, but no death bed conversion.

Was Oxford a misprint for Cambridge - or do you refer to the fact that his main posthumous reputation was from Oxford philosophers?

Oxford has been for a century-plus *by far* the largest and most dominant professional philosophical university in the UK - despite that none of the really major philosophers were there; but were instead at Cambridge or LSE!

You may perhaps be right about W and Catholicism - I haven't much liked those I have read (Fergus Kerr, Anscombe, I think some others) - but he seems to me a very long way from Thomism.