Wittgenstein on Ethics and Faith

In his few published remarks concerning the nature of religious faith, Wittgenstein calls into question the function of historical events in the grounding of religious convictions. In a series of lectures and notebook entries dating from the decade between 1930 and 1940, he argues that language operates uniquely when used to communicate ideas of religious significance. Whereas non-religious correspondence functions within the scope of one linguistic register, Wittgenstein claims, religious utterance moves within a unique system of reference, one reliant upon visual representation. Until we recognize the disparity between commonplace speech and religious assertions we run the risk of confusing the role of historical data in the founding of faith.

In this paper I offer a reading of Wittgenstein’s earliest commentary on ethics and aesthetics given in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This material, I argue, provides the epistemological backdrop against which his comments on the relation of historical propositions to faith come into focus, and clarifies the ambiguities found in his later lectures and notes. I suggest that Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ethics and aesthetics, as expounded in the Tractatus, explains his reluctance to include historical facts among the types of factors involved in expressing and determining religious belief. Irreducible to mere facts, religious discourse overflows assertoric propositions and demands that we modulate our hermeneutic approach accordingly.

While these themes recur throughout his corpus, Wittgenstein gives them special attention in the concluding pages of the Tractatus. In stark contrast to the book’s reliance on rigorous, analytic argumentation the final passages of the Tractatus abandon strict logical development in favor of speculative reflection on the nature of ethics. Wittgenstein closes his book by establishing an ontology that imposes severe limits on our capacity to convey ethical values in language.

He writes:

            (6.4) All propositions are of equal value.

            (6.41) The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it here is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value.

If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being so is accidental. […] It must lie outside the world.

            (6.42) Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

In claiming that “All propositions are of equal value” I take Wittgenstein to mean that all propositions embody nothing more than facts, and cannot possess greater or lesser value as mere observational statements. At best, factual statements in the form of propositions can convey relative value judgments, but never objective value. Genuine value, if it exists, cannot derive from the realm of “happening and being-so” – the realm of facts – but must emanate from “outside the world”.

Eight years after the publication of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein provided a commentary on these enigmatic remarks in a lecture on ethics. Collected in an essay entitled “Ethics, Life and Faith”, the lecture demonstrates how little Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the nature of ethics changed in the decade following his first book.

In the lecture, he says, “Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value” (290). Statements such as, “The right way to play poker is to first deal the cards” expresses a subjective preference in relation to a specified goal, namely to play poker in accordance with the rules, and might also take the form: “The way to play poker by the rules is to first deal the cards”. We would be mistaken to consider this type of proposition, the kind that communicates facts concerning the attainment of a specified goal, an absolute value judgment, for it expresses value only insofar as its goal possesses value. But goals themselves possess no absolute value, only other facts relating to other goals.

Even the sum total of facts communicate nothing of absolute value, says Wittgenstein. If scientists were capable of documenting every fact of the universe and formulated every true proposition possible, the resulting data would consist of equally valuable propositions, none more ethically pertinent than the others. “[A]ll the facts described would,” he writes, “stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial” (291). So long as our propositions consist of statements of fact, they remain outside the realm of ethics. It is no wonder then that in the Tractatus Wittgenstein writes, “(6.52) We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” Science, as the study of facts, cannot supply solutions to life’s ultimate concerns, and Wittgenstein clearly counts ethics among these most pressing questions.

One is tempted to interpret Wittgenstein as arguing that, because all our propositions must necessarily take the form of factual statements – statements that say nothing of ethics – ethics does not exist. Indeed, several of his remarks support such a reading. In “Ethics, Life and Faith” he writes, “And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing” (291). But while he remains skeptical of our ability to reify ethics into a science of thought or language, Wittgenstein nonetheless recognizes the existence of a transcendent ethical reality.

Much to the dismay of his colleagues in the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein admits of a broader medium of knowledge beyond the analytic-linguistic confines of logical positivism. While supporters such as Betrand Russell enthusiastically championed Wittgenstein’s condemnation of what both men perceived to be insupportable indulgences in the history of metaphysics, Russell could not understand Wittgenstein’s insistence on retaining a notion of the mystical. Wittgenstein himself leaves no question about his position on this subject. In the Tractatus he writes, “(6.522) There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” Philosophers have placed such an emphasis on the negative component of Wittgenstein’s philosophy – namely, the limitations he places on the propositional force of language – that some critics tend to overlook his affirmation of mystical experience. But only through his exposition of the mystical can we make sense of Wittgenstein’s position concerning the function of historical facts in the acquisition of religious belief.

Against the ardent materialism of Russell and the other positivists, Wittgenstein defended the existence of an irreducibly mystical component to existence. We do not come to comprehend ethics by way of propositional statements, he claimed, but through a mystical experience that overflows language. What constitutes a mystical experience? In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein offers an answer: “(6.44) Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” Alone, the comment does little to explain what Wittgenstein means by mystical, but he develops the concept in “Ethics, Life and Faith”. In that lecture he attempts to give concrete examples of “absolute or ethical value” despite the inability of language to capture its mystical essence. He offers up his “wonder at the existence of the world” (294) as a paradigmatic experience of absolute value, and here we have as straightforward a presentation of the mystical as Wittgenstein is willing to supply us. A careful analysis of the example will give us insight into how the mystical relates to faith and belief.

Wittgenstein stresses that, though genuine, the mystical experience remains nonsensical. “[I]t is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world,” he writes, “because I cannot imagine it not existing” (293). Language complicates rather than clarifies the mystical experience by bringing to bear a logical apparatus that fails to render the experience coherent. When we attempt to convey the experiential significance of the mystical encounter in language we strip the experience of its essential properties by reducing it to a mere retelling of facts, facts that on their face do not make sense.

But facts alone do not underlie the mystical experience, Wittgenstein claims, and the use of similes, so common in ethical discourse, distorts rather than clarifies the experience’s relation to facts. While “in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes” in appropriate and meaningful ways, we actually obscure the mystical experience by suggesting that a simile represents the facts of the encounter (294). When we attempt to drop the simile and state the facts themselves, as we can with other similes, “we find that there are no such facts” (294). Here the tension appears irreconcilable. On the one hand we experience the mystical encounter with the absolute as an actual experience – one rooted in factual conditions and susceptible of the same type of description common to other forms of experience – and on the other we must acknowledge that facts cannot convey the absolute value of the mystical. Wittgenstein admits, “It is the paradox that an experience, a fact, should seem to have supernatural value” (294).The “miracle” of the mystical encounter, as Wittgenstein calls is, departs the moment we employ a simile, and all our attempts to embody these experiences in language remain nonsensical.

Where does that leave the ethical, and what does Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ethics say concerning his comments on religion? While it exists in a precarious ontological space somewhere between fact and nonsense, Wittgenstein fully acknowledges his encounter with the ethical in the form of mystical experience. As both ethics and the mystical constitute fundamentally religious concerns, I want to now suggest we draw parallels between Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ethics and his understanding of the role of religious-historical facts. In both instances, Wittgenstein stresses the importance of experience over that of linguistic utterance, so that just as ethics cannot be reduced to factual statements, neither can religious belief be primarily a relation to historical facts. If either is to maintain ultimate significance or “absolute value,” they must derive from a paradoxical experience of the mystical.

In the space that remains, I will consider how Wittgenstein might conceive of the paradigmatic encounter with religious truth. While he clearly rejects the notion that religious belief is grounded upon one’s acceptance of historical events, I do not think he aims to undermine the authenticity of those factual occurrences so much as to insist that facts are not the crucial determiner of absolute value. If religion possesses such value, then it too must “lie outside the world”, for facts themselves maintain only relative value.

In an aphorism collected in Culture and Value, Wittgenstein writes, “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life” (28e). At face value, Wittgenstein seems to deny the relevance of historical fact and the doctrine of salvation to the Christian faith, a notion that would clearly violate Christian orthodoxy. But by framing the aphorism within the context of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of ethics and value we can posit an alternative reading. In much the same way that ethical propositions cannot embody the paradox of absolute value, neither can historical propositions convey the absolute significance and paradox of religion. In both instances, an existential experience of the absolute overflows language’s capacity to contain the essence of the encounter.

If language cannot serve as the medium through which we encounter the religious paradox, how do we experience it? Foreshadowing the direction his later philosophy would take, Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus, “(6.421) It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one)”. By “ethics and aesthetics are one”, I take Wittgenstein to mean that, like aesthetic objects, ethics shows itself. And indeed he writes a page later, “(6.522) [. . .] This shows itself; it is the mystical.” I do not think we ought to overlook Wittgenstein’s equating of ethics with aesthetics, for I believe it indicates the form of experience that the absolute, including the religious absolute, manifests itself.

In his “Lectures on Religious Belief”, delivered around 1938, Wittgenstein considers a common religious-historical proposition: “Take ‘God created man’. Pictures of Michelangelo showing that creation of the world. In general, there is nothing which explains the meanings of words as well as a picture” (63). Wittgenstein suggests here that the visual rather than the verbal is the ideal mode for comprehending the mystical paradox of creation. Throughout his later work he stresses the primacy of the pictorial over the verbal, and unfolds a theory of language tied directly to the formulation of mental images. The importance of the contrast, I think, is that what is perceived visually is experienced in a phenomenologically distinct, and perhaps more compelling way, than that of verbal propositions. None of the problems that arise when experience is transcribed into language complicate the encounter with the absolute as visual phenomena, and clearly Wittgenstein understands the visual mode of experience to possess a unique epistemological significance.

Religion shows itself, whether literally or figuratively, to be absolute in experience alone. Our encounter with linguistically embodied historical-religious facts remain bound to this world and possess only relative value, but encounters with the absolute can occur in the course of daily life. Wittgenstein draws his lecture in “Ethics, Life and Faith” to a close with these words: “Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about,” (304). Our reified relation to historical facts – none of which we have any direct experience of – cannot undergird our faith; we must see to believe.





Wittgenstein, Ludwig, G. H. Von Wright, and Heikki Nyman. Culture and Value. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and Anthony Kenny. “Ethics, Life and Faith.” The Wittgenstein Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and Cyril Barrett. “Lectures on Religious Belief.” Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Berkeley: University of California, 1966. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and C. K. Ogden. Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003. Print.

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