Reasonable Atheism (22): The problem of definitions

In the debate going on at Stephen Law’s place (here) The Celtic Chimp made this comment:

“I eventually had to give up arguing with Sam. His beliefs are so vague and insubstantial that I have come to doubt that Sam himself knows what he believes. I think ‘God cannot be the member of any set’ was the straw that broke the camels back.
I offer fair and honest warning to anyone with a healthy respect for actually taking a definable position. Debating with Sam is like going to the movies to see a film. There are tons of adverts for forthcoming movies and then the credits roll.”

I thought this was quite an amusing image, but it needs a decent response – click ‘full post’ for text.

In a debate where one person refuses to give a concrete definition of their terms, it is understandable that the other parties become frustrated because this seems to go against all the norms of proper philosophical debate. However, what this reveals is the desire for ‘definitions’ – and this desire is one of the main targets of Wittgenstein’s philosophical therapy.

Some paragraphs edited from this essay.

For Wittgenstein the source of the traditional approach to philosophy was Socrates (he sometimes called the source of confusion ‘Plato’s method’).. He once said to his friend Drury [Quoted in The Danger of Words, M O’C Drury, Thoemmes Press, 1996, p115.], ‘It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how that word is used, he isn’t satisfied but wants a unique definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want.’ Or consider these remarks, the first made in 1931, the second in 1945: ‘Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?’; ‘Socrates keeps reducing the Sophist to silence, – but does he have right on his side when he does this? Well it is true that the Sophist does not know what he thinks he knows; but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can’t be a case of “You see! you don’t know it!” – nor yet, triumphantly, of “So none of us knows anything”.’

I expect that Wittgenstein had in mind a passage such as this one, from Socrates’ first speech in the Phaedrus: ‘in every discussion there is only one way of beginning if one is to come to a sound conclusion, and that is to know what one is discussing… Let us then begin by agreeing upon a definition’. In the conclusion of the Phaedrus Socrates restates this: ‘a man must know the truth about any subject that he deals with; he must be able to define it.’

For Wittgenstein it is this emphasis upon definability in words which is the source of all our metaphysical illusions. For Wittgenstein Socrates was the source of all our metaphysical troubles, and the source of (for example) Descartes’ ‘clear and distinct ideas’ lies ‘…as deep in us as the forms of our language’. It seems clear that, as Baker and Hacker put it in their commentary on the Investigations [GP Baker and PMS Hacker, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Understanding, Blackwell, 1997, p350], ‘Wittgenstein noted that some of the deep distortions of meaning, explanation and understanding originate with Plato’.

Consider this remark of Wittgenstein’s from 1931: ‘People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say that don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’ ‘true’ ‘false’ ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space etc etc, people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding’ they believe of course that they can see beyond these’.

Fergus Kerr has written that ‘The history of theology might even be written in terms of periodic struggles with the metaphysical inheritance’ [Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, Blackwell, 1986, p187.] and it does seem as if there is something intrinsic to metaphysical endeavour which is inimical to the practice of theology, certainly on a post-Wittgensteinian account of metaphysics. The argument ultimately concerns the nature of language and how far it can express religious truth. For Wittgenstein ‘the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life’ [Culture and Value, p85] and I think that this is wholly in tune with Wittgenstein’s comment that he would by no means prefer a continuation of his work to a change in the way people live which would make all these questions superfluous.’

For Wittgenstein it is always action which is primary – ‘In the beginning was the deed’ – and our language gains its sense from being embodied in certain practices. Consider the following passage (written in 1937): ‘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. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’


The reason why the Chimp finds me evasive, and others call me ‘more slippery than soap’ is because a) I don’t believe we can define God, b) I don’t think definitions are the be-all and end-all of fruitful discussion, but most of all c) because I accept that ‘practice gives the words their sense’ – and it is only by attending to the practice of Christian life, most of all in the Eucharist, that Christian understandings of God can be found.