Reasonable Faith – Thoughts on Wittgenstein

All too often our culture tends to regard the rigors of the natural sciences and secular philosophy as standing in opposition to faith. As science continues to expand our understanding of the universe it appears to free us of any need for faith-based explanations of existence. Analytic philosophy – the dominate branch of the tradition within the United States and Britain concerned with logic, empirical observation, and linguistics – has also minimized our reliance upon metaphysical or mystical accounts of the world. In light of its achievements it might seem reasonable to assume that faith simply plays no significant role in our efforts to understand existence. But if we study the dominate thinkers of the last three hundred years we discover that each one confesses an inability to thoroughly explain existence through science or logic alone, and that most philosophers arrive at some sort of uncomfortable compromise between science and what can only be termed mysticism.

While reading Brian Magee’s excellent intellectual biography Confessions of a Philosopher, I encountered yet another example of a relentlessly logical thinker arriving at an unquestionably mystical conclusion. Magee offers a fascinating account of his years studying philosophy at Oxford and Yale, and details the bitter methodological schism between the Continental and analytic schools of philosophy during the first half of the twentieth century. Especially interesting are his thoughts on why the analytic philosophers of Oxford failed to understand the work of the tradition’s leading thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

An Austrian who began his academic career studying aeronautics and engineering, Wittgenstein eventually turned his attention to mathematics and the philosophical works of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege. His Tactatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1921 attempted to offer a purely logical analysis of the way linguistic propositions correspond to the logical structure of the world. Like his strictly analytical colleagues, Wittgenstein tried to eschew illogical or empty metaphysical statements that he viewed as unsupportable. Yet in order to guide his reader to the point at which he or she might comprehend his argument, Wittgenstein was forced to use language in exactly this illogical manner, to go beyond language’s capacity to embody meaningful statements about empirically verifiable facts and state purely abstract observations that defied logical justification. Not only did Wittgenstein find such transgressions unavoidable, but he ultimately concluded that the proper scope of language cannot penetrate all that there is to know about the universe. The legitimate role of language, and therefore of philosophy, he concluded, must be limited to explanation of observable facts and conditions of the world. The philosophical community, including the highly influential group of analytical philosophers known as The Vienna Circle, readily accepted Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophy could say nothing coherent about the grand metaphysical questions that had plagued humankind for millennia and eagerly dismissed the other half of the philosophical tradition that indulged in speculative hypothesizing.

Magee claims that his professors and peers at Oxford adopted the same attitude toward the Tractatus and Continental philosophy. They were convinced, Magee writes, that it was futile to attempt to explain through language ideas or concepts that were not readily measured by scientific observation, and that language, a flawed and unreliable medium, played a subordinate role to the natural sciences. What they missed entirely, Magee argues, is that Wittgenstein never denies the existence of a world beyond the purview of language or refutes such a world’s significance. In fact Magee, along with a host of other modern interpreters, claims that Wittgenstein’s work, despite his efforts to remain purely logical, is deeply metaphysical and even provides excellent rationale for thinking metaphysically. Language may offer us a limited ability to understand the world at hand, but what we really want to know, that which is most important about life, lies beyond language. The analytic philosophers mistakenly took Wittgenstein’s famous closing lines of the Tractatus – “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” – to mean that he denied the existence of that which we cannot speak. Wittgenstein, Magee claims, had just the opposite in mind.

Quoting Paul Engelmann, Maggee writes:

‘A whole generation of disciples was able to take Wittgenstein as a positivist, because he has something of enormous importance in common with the positivists: he draws the line between what we can speak about and what we must be silent about just as they do. The difference is only that they have nothing to be silent about. Positivism holds – and this is its essence – that what we can speak about is all that matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.’”

Wittgenstein agreed that language could not embody some truths because, if I read him correctly, it is logically incommensurate with some types of phenomena. He draws a distinction between what can be said  in language and that which can only be shown. Instead of denying the existence of what cannot be said, he simply acknowledges the limitation. “There is indeed the inexpressible,” he writes in the Tractatus, “This shows  itself, it is the mystical.” The mystical is what we would like to know more than anything, but what remains inaccessible through language alone. Yet we see the mystical all the time, Wittgenstein claims, in art: in poetry, painting, music. Art demonstrates the existence of what logical language cannot explicate.

Like Kant and Heidegger, Wittgenstein allocates a space within his philosophy for that which lies beyond science and logic. Our best efforts to probe reality ultimately, he suggests, remain incomplete. We can see this other side of existence demonstrated in art, but cannot embody its truth in language or science. Certainly there is room for faith in such a world.

One thought on “Reasonable Faith – Thoughts on Wittgenstein

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