(My MA thesis, without footnotes – it’s the argument that’s important!)

This is my MA thesis on Wittgenstein – the pinnacle of my academic career. (So far 😉
Having just re-read it, six years after production (now ten years!), I feel rather proud of it. Certainly my thinking hasn’t changed, and I think I make a solid case – but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

My essay can be summarised as an argument for the following theses:
a) Wittgenstein had a consistent purpose in his philosophical work, composed of two elements –
i) a belief in the ineffability of the mystical, that value cannot be spoken; and
ii) a consequent need to put limits to the realm of philosophy, in order not to distort our understanding of what is of value; and
b) the change from the early to the later Wittgenstein is only concerned with part ii) above, viz. Wittgenstein’s understanding of the nature of philosophy changed (the division between sense and nonsense in the Tractatus mutated into the development of a new method for philosophy in the Investigations) but the rôle of philosophy within his overall thinking remained constant.


1. Wittgenstein once infamously observed: ‘I am not a religious person but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view’1. It is now approaching common knowledge that Wittgenstein was deeply interested in religion in general, and Christianity in particular2; as Norman Malcolm put it, ‘it is surely right to say that Wittgenstein’s mature life was strongly marked by religious thought and feeling’3. I am concerned in this essay to explore the way in which Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings were governed by a religious perspective. I argue that although the understanding of language changed drastically from the Tractatus to the Investigations, the role that language played (however understood) within Wittgenstein’s overall Weltanschauung stayed the same, and that overall Weltanschaaung is one that can legitimately be described as religious – in fact, as mystical. My thesis is that throughout his life Wittgenstein wished to enjoin upon philosophy a silence about questions of value – an apophatic, mystical silence.

2. My essay can be summarised as an argument for the following theses:
a) Wittgenstein had a consistent purpose in his philosophical work, composed of two elements –
i) a belief in the ineffability of the mystical, that value cannot be spoken; and
ii) a consequent need to put limits to the realm of philosophy, in order not to distort our understanding of what is of value; and
b) the change from the early to the later Wittgenstein is only concerned with part ii) above, viz. Wittgenstein’s understanding of the nature of philosophy changed (the division between sense and nonsense in the Tractatus mutated into the development of a new method for philosophy in the Investigations) but the rôle of philosophy within his overall thinking remained constant.
I should say at this point that I do not consider the main points of my argument to be original4, although I do not think that this point of view is well known, and therefore a summary of the evidence and relevant points may have some merit.

3. In order to bring these theses out clearly, my argument will proceed in the following stages. Firstly, I argue that the Tractatus was a philosophical work directed by a religious concern, specifically, an outlook that can be described as mystical. Secondly I shall argue that the Investigations was governed by the same outlook, and can only be fully understood in that light, arguing that the Investigations can best be understood as advancing an apophatic method. In order to do this I will outline Wittgenstein’s method, as described in the Investigations, and show how it has the same function within Wittgenstein’s overall perspective as the theory put forward in the Tractatus. My contention is that Wittgenstein’s over-riding concern, in both the Tractatus and Investigations, was to stop philosophy, or more precisely, metaphysics, going ‘beyond itself’ and usurping the role of religious language. I end with some criticisms of the understanding of mysticism that underlies Wittgenstein’s project, and offer some thoughts on the implications for both philosophy and theology.

A definition of the mystical

4. In order to be clear about Wittgenstein’s overall purpose, then, I first need to make a brief digression into the nature of mysticism, in order that there is some clarity about my use of the word for the purposes of this essay. William James, in ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’5, defines mysticism with four characteristics, two of which he considers to be the most important: a) ineffability: ‘it defies expression…no adequate report of its contents can be given in words’; and b) mysticism has a noetic quality, ‘states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect’6. Furthermore, James states that these mystical experiences are foundational for religious life7, and that they are opposed to rationalism8. He argues that rationalism ‘insists that all our beliefs ought ultimately to find for themselves articulate grounds [which] must consist of four things: (1) definitely statable abstract principles; (2) definite facts of sensation; (3) definite hypotheses based on such facts; and (4) definite inferences logically drawn.’ He continues, the ‘inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it…The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion.’ To summarise James’ position, one might say that the mystical provides knowledge which cannot be spoken of, and that it is opposed to the tendency in human thinking to prioritise the rational (ie it argues that religion is founded on mystical experience, not upon thinking). In this essay, when I use the word mystical, I am using it in this Jamesian sense.

5. I am using James as my model for understanding mysticism, not because James has the best understanding of what mysticism is (he does not) but for two other reasons: his understanding provides a close fit with Wittgenstein’s position, and there is some evidence to suggest a direct influence on Wittgenstein from James. It is clear that Wittgenstein read James, and was greatly impressed by his work, recommending him to Drury as ‘a real human being’9. There is a lack of clarity in dating when it was that Wittgenstein read James, but it was in the period before the First World War. In connection with this, it is worth pointing out that he once said to Drury that all his fundamental ideas came to him early in life10, and his fundamental concerns were always ethical and religious in character. He wrote to Russell that ‘This book does me a lot of good. I don’t mean to say that I will be a saint soon, but I am not sure that it does not improve me a little in a way in which I would like to improve very much: namely I think that it helps me to get rid of the Sorge [worry, anxiety] (in the sense in which Goethe used the word in the 2nd part of Faust)’.11 Monk explicitly links this description with a change in Wittgenstein’s religious sensibilities, noted by Russell in 1912, provoked (perhaps) by a play he watched in Vienna before that time. It therefore seems legitimate to use James, from the close conceptual fit between his work and Wittgenstein’s, and because there is good evidence of influence from James to Wittgenstein.

The mystical motivation of the Tractatus

6. The Tractatus is considered by many to be one of the major achievements of twentieth century philosophy. The main thrust of its argument concerns the picture theory of language. According to this conception, language mirrors reality, and can be used with sense to talk about reality, because there is a direct correspondence between the formal relationships within our language and the formal relationship between objects in the world. Wittgenstein was apparently inspired to this conception by an account of a trial in France, following a car accident, which involved a scale model of the road, vehicles, and individuals concerned. In just the same way as there was a one on one correspondence between the models and the real objects being discussed, so too is there a correspondence between a word and the object denoted by that word in reality. Furthermore, not only is there a correspondence between objects and words, but there is a correspondence between the logical form of the language, and the relationship between the objects being represented.

7. According to Wittgenstein’s conception, the world is the totality of facts12. These facts are understood (by us – ie we present facts to ourselves) as pictures, models of reality13 – a picture is a fact14. For a picture to be able to represent a fact, it must have something in common with the world, or reality, which is its form15. This form cannot itself be represented, it can only be displayed16 (it is therefore transcendent). This form is logical form, and the totality of facts exist within logical space17. A picture represents a possible situation, one that has a location within logical space (and can therefore be either true or false), and this representation is the sense of the picture18. In order to establish the truth of a picture, it must be compared with reality, for there are no pictures which are true a priori19. A picture which is correctly formed, a logical picture, is a thought20, and a thought is a proposition with a sense21 – that is, it is capable of representing a fact in logical space. The totality of propositions is language22, and propositions are the only forms of language which have sense23.

8. This understanding of language was intended to be restrictive: it restricted the ways in which language could be used with sense, that is, it put boundaries around what forms of language were to be considered meaningful. The only propositions which are capable of bearing sense are the propositions of natural science24: a proposition is a thought which can be perceived by the senses25, they represent the existence and non-existence of states of affairs26. Wittgenstein wrote: ‘The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, ie propositions of natural science – ie something that has nothing to do with philosophy – and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions’27. On this conception of the nature of language, only the propositions of natural science have sense; all other propositions, in particular, ‘most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works’, are lacking in sense, they are nonsense. For Wittgenstein, ‘Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language’28. In this way, Wittgenstein restricted the role of philosophy, and separated it from the natural sciences29, arguing that it ‘sets limits’30 to natural science. Philosophy ‘is not a body of doctrine but an activity’, which ‘aims at the logical clarification of thoughts’31.

9. The argument of the Tractatus continues beyond the limiting of meaningful language to the propositions of natural science, and states that the propositions of natural science are ultimately trivial – ‘propositions can express nothing that is higher’32. The principal topic which Wittgenstein discusses, which is set apart from the realm of the natural sciences, is logic. Logic is completely separate from reality: ‘all the propositions of logic say the same thing, to wit nothing’33; ‘Logic is prior to every experience’34; ‘Not only must a proposition of logic be irrefutable by any possible experience, but it must also be unconfirmable by any possible experience’35. Logic must be separate to the conclusions of natural science, for ‘propositions can represent the whole of reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it – logical form’36. This logical form is mirrored in the language, it is not (cannot be) represented or stated in the language37 – ‘what can be shown, cannot be said’38. This distinction between showing and saying is at the heart of Wittgenstein’s argument, and this leads to the conclusion ‘Logic is not a body of doctrine, but a mirror-image of the world. Logic is transcendental’39.

10. The division between showing and saying also governs his conception of philosophy as a whole, and is at the centre of the overall project of the Tractatus – ‘There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.’40. Philosophy is able to set limits to what can be thought, and by so doing, set limits to what cannot be thought41; it ‘will signify what cannot be said, by presenting clearly what can be said’42. That is, propositions can say nothing about questions of value, for all propositions are of equal value43 (or equally value-less), they can express ‘nothing which is higher’44. Philosophy, according to the conception of the Tractatus, is an activity designed to limit what can be said, in order to gain clarity45 and by so doing, it must rule out the possibility of any propositions of value or meaning – ‘the sense of the world must lie outside the world…in it no value exists’46. All questions of ethics and aesthetics are ruled outside of the realm of philosophy, for ‘It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental’47. Wittgenstein continues ‘The solutions of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time’48 – and therefore outside the realm of what can be expressed in propositions, ‘How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world’49.

11. At the heart of Wittgenstein’s work in the Tractatus, therefore, is a concern with mysticism: ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists’50. Wittgenstein has outlined a conception of logic and philosophy that prevents natural science from gaining a foothold on questions of value – ‘We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.’51 And this leads into the conclusion of the work: ‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence’52. The overall argument of the work is therefore to enjoin upon philosophers a silence about value, for nothing meaningful can be said about it. And this argument applies to the Tractatus itself; in the penultimate paragraph of the work Wittgenstein writes about using his work as a ladder, which needs to be thrown away after use. The reader ‘must transcend these propositions [of the Tractatus] and then he will see the world aright’53. Once the reader has realised that nothing meaningful can be said about value, or the problem of the meaning of life, then the reader is liberated to see the world clearly – they can gain an insight into the meaning of life, ‘(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constitued that sense?)’54. The argument of the Tractatus can therefore be seen as a form of therapy, ‘to draw a limit to thought’, in order that the important questions of life, of ‘what is higher’ can then be clearly seen.

External evidence
12. It would help, at this point in my argument, to bring in some evidence for from outside the text to support this reading of the Tractatus. It is indisputable that Wittgenstein was passionately interested in religious questions whilst developing the arguments of the Tractatus: In his notebooks, written while involved on the Eastern Front in the First World War, there is a continual interleaving of remarks on logic and remarks about religion. Most important, however, is the letter which Wittgenstein wrote to Ficker, the publisher of the Tractatus: ‘The point of the book is ethical…my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book, and I’m convinced that, strictly speaking, it can only be delimited in this way.’55 The limit to thought, which Wittgenstein is trying to draw, should therefore be seen as an attempt to inhibit rationalism, in something like the sense described by James. Wittgenstein continued in his letter to Ficker,, ‘All of that which many are babbling [about] today, I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it.’ The point which Wittgenstein is making here is well brought out by Engelmann: ‘A whole generation of disciples was able to take Wittgenstein for a positivist because he has something of enormous importance in common with the postitivists: 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. When he nevertheless takes immense pains to delimit the unimportant, it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on surveying with such meticulous accuracy, but the boundary of the ocean.’56

13. To summarise this section, therefore, the argument is that Wittgenstein’s work in the Tractatus was governed by a mystical objective – to indicate knowledge which cannot be spoken of, and to put limits around the work of philosophy to stop it misleading people about the nature of that knowledge. The ‘two parts’ of the work to which Wittgenstein referred are these, and it is the second which dominates the text of the Tractatus. Wittgenstein is addressing the question of the meaning of life, questions of value and ethics. He wishes to say something about it, to indicate the solution, but part of his solution is the realisation that nothing can be said about questions of value. In this he is acting as a mystic, in the Jamesian sense – he is arguing that questions of value are ineffable, and that rationality (logic and natural science) is incapable of answering these questions. He is therefore engaged in putting limits to what can be said – in order that what cannot be said can be seen clearly. This distinction into two parts, of what can be said and what cannot be said, represents a ‘framework’. It is my contention that the method of philosophy developed in the Investigations was a reforming of the second part of Wittgenstein’s mystical objective. In the Investigations Wittgenstein was still concerned with putting limits to the project of philosophy, of stopping it going beyond the bounds of sense, and this was because he still believed that what was most important could not be stated, that questions of value were ineffable. So although the content of his philosophy changed, the framework within which that philosophy was held stayed the same.

The Method of the Investigations – Clarity, not Truth

14. As is well known, in the Investigations Wittgenstein develops a new account of the nature of language. However, it would be misleading to characterise this as a new theory about language, for that would be to give theory a certain foundationalist primacy which Wittgenstein is concerned to disavow. Rather, in the Investigations, it is more correct to think of Wittgenstein advancing a new method of doing philosophy, which has the investigation of language at its centre, rather than as simply providing a new theory of what language is and does.

15. Wittgenstein wrote57: ‘Philosophy can in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.’ The philosopher’s role, therefore, is essentially non-deductive; it is not concerned with offering proofs for particular positions, it is concerned with achieving clarity. Philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts are used in our language that gives them their importance. When philosophers ask how it is that we know that there is an external world, how we can be assured of the independent existence of other people and so on, this is evidence that the philosophers do not understand the words that they are using. In these examples, the philosopher’s questions appear to be grappling with profound truths, deep and important issues58. For Wittgenstein, however, these are not genuine questions, rather they are confusions felt as problems. The philosopher should be concerned with what sense it makes to say certain things, not whether something is true or false. What is needed is an overview (űbersicht) of the language being used, the concepts employed, and once this is done then the questions cease to trouble us. Wittgenstein at one point59 employs the analogy of a potato growing shoots if it is left in the dark. He considered that this was what happened in philosophy: philosophers were searching for the light, and just as the potato sent out tendrils which stopped as soon as they found light, so also philosophy built up great metaphysical works in an attempt to gain insight into how things were. What Wittgenstein wanted to do was to shed light on the potato to stop the tendrils from growing in the first place.

16. The easiest way to get a quick grasp of the mature Wittgenstein’s view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. (For the purposes of this paper I am just going to consider the spoken word). In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have. Think of the expression ‘I need some water’. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it also contains elements of an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: ‘I need some water’ – where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In all these examples, although the literal meaning of the word ‘water’ remains constant – referring to the fluid with the chemical composition H2O – the overall sense of the words, and therefore the meaning of the expression as it is actually used, varies greatly. In order to understand the words properly, we need to situate them into their natural context.

17. Now, for Wittgenstein, the point of this grammatical investigation was that you achieved clarity about any questions that are at issue. If there is a philosophical discussion, then the way to proceed is to conduct a grammatical investigation of the words and concepts that are in dispute. To look at how different words are used in their normal context. For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems are the result of conceptual confusion and to meet these problems what is needed is conceptual clarification. The task of the philosopher is carefully to depict the relationships between different concepts, in other words, to investigate their grammar. The concepts are the ones used in our everyday language, and it is the fact that the concepts are used in our language that gives them their importance. A grammatical investigation in the Wittgensteinian sense is one that looks at how words are used within a lived context. Hence there is the need to investigate the nature of language games and forms of life. This is a method, and it is with this method that Wittgenstein’s true genius lies. In contrast to almost all philosophers within the Western tradition Wittgenstein was not concerned with providing answers to particular questions. Rather, he wished to gain clarity about the question at issue, in order therefore to dissolve the controversy.

18. How then should a philosopher work? In any philosophical investigation, the examination of language has a preeminent role. For Wittgenstein many of our problems arise because we expect our language to be logical and clear, when in fact it is complex and opaque. We are misled by the grammar of particular concepts. For example, on the surface the following two sentences would appear to have the same grammar: ‘Birds flew by’; ‘Time flew by’. The first word in each sentence functions as a noun. For the first sentence, when we ask what the word ‘Birds’ means, we can point to an external reference and say ‘Those are birds’, and thus we can explain what the sentence refers to. But what of the second sentence – and a traditional philosophical question might well be ‘What is time’? We want to know what the word means, and because the word is a noun we look to see what it is that is referred to. Yet there is nothing to which we can point and say ‘That is time’. Thus philosophers are puzzled, and trying to answer questions such as this is the epitome of the ‘deep and meaningful question’ which a philosopher is meant to consider. And in developing an answer, a metaphysical system can be generated – like potato shoots looking for the light.

19. For Wittgenstein, though, this question, when asked by a philosopher, is literally without sense. Why do we assume that there must be something tangible to which the word refers? To follow Wittgenstein’s method, we should look at how the word is actually used in our language, and see if that is enlightening. Thus, when we look at the contexts in which we use the sentence ‘Time flew by’ they would tend to describe times when we are particularly absorbed in a piece of work, or where we are with friends having an enjoyable evening. The phrase has its meaning in that context, and only in that context. To then ask, ‘But what is time?’ is absurd. For Wittgenstein, what we must always have at the forefront of our minds is the contingent basis of the language that we use. Language has evolved for particular purposes, it has various distinct uses, and there is no necessity that there is a clear and logical basis for it60.

20. What Wittgenstein does, therefore, is try and get us to examine what language actually is, and to try and forget for a moment our preconceptions, or our desires for what we want language to be61. In setting up the different language games, for example at the beginning of the Investigations, Wittgenstein is attempting to raise our awareness of what language actually does in different situations. Wittgenstein wants to release philosophers from the ‘mental cramp’ that comes when we try and ask meaningless questions like ‘What is time?’

Concrete differences
21. For Wittgenstein the ability to be a good philosopher depended upon the ability to think up good analogies or counter-examples which allow for a new way of seeing connections (PI §122). For example, another way in which Wittgenstein tries to release us from ‘mental cramp’ is through an emphasis on the importance of the particular case. Wittgenstein is here trying to resist the urge to give an overarching theory, an explanation of different phenomena. The urge to give explanations to cover every case is actually neurotic, and it is this urge to generalise with which Wittgenstein takes task. Thus in PI §11-14 there is the discussion of language as like a tool box, with different tools to perform different functions. Why should there be something which all tools have in common? And why are you so concerned to find it? Wittgenstein is very concerned to ease the philosophical mind away from its tendency for abstract theorising, and to focus it on everyday details. Thus there can be no clear argument in the Investigations or else it could be summarised and generalised. The Investigations can be thought of as being an exercise book, or, as a form of therapy62. If you work through the book then you will be cured of the tendency to generalise.

22. This is something that Wittgenstein was very concerned with: the urge to find the essence of something, and then to generalise and explain it. Another element in Wittgenstein’s course of therapy is the notion of ‘family resemblance’. Consider games – board games, ball games, Olympic Games and so on. What is it that makes them all games? In fact there is no common element; rather there is a network of overlapping similarities which allow us to group these activities together. What is important is that the notion of family resemblance provides a new analogy with which to categorise things, one that doesn’t try and reduce games to a single vital constituent, without which a game would cease to be a game. We should focus on the differences involved with different games (that we normally would accept are games) in order to avoid coming up with a new definition of what a game is that would actually exclude various forms. Rather than trying to look below the surface, we should simply observe the practice, and accept that the practices cannot be shoe-horned into a particular intellectual framework – our minds need to switch off. Wittgenstein felt that this urge was the result of the obsessive worship of science in our culture, and the desire to apply scientific methods to other fields. Wittgenstein emphasises that this desire is often inappropriate and generates confusion – there is no essence of a game, of which actual games are examples. Rather, there are simply games that we play.

The role of philosophy
23. When describing language, Wittgenstein uses the analogy of an old city63, which has small twists and byways in the medieval centre, and as you move out through the suburbs the roads become straighter and the houses more standardised. What philosophy must do is provide an accurate road map, which can be a reliable guide as you travel around the city. (What it cannot do is build houses). Wittgenstein wrote64 ‘The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.’ I understand the first part of this to be like pointing out that, in the centre of the city, there isn’t in fact a mountain, there is a market square. We do not need a grand metaphysical structure to tell us about time (for example) we need to see how people live, to observe how language is sewn into the way that they behave. The second part is the more interesting, and I understand it to mean that, if we are using the map and find that we crash, there is something wrong with the map. This is important because if we crash, we are forced to look up from the map and see what the state of play actually is. (I think that, for Wittgenstein, this can be related to his advice to most of his students not to study philosophy: it is more important to look around than to make maps – unless you were a genius at map making, like Wittgenstein).

24. The analogy can be developed further. In opposing the tendency to offer essentialist or scientific style explanations of phenomena, it is rather like map makers from the city resisting those from the suburbs, who are trying to say that the city centre is also built along long straight roads. When you use a suburban map, therefore, and bump your head, you realise that there is more to life than suburbia. I think that, in throwing us back from our mental maps and making us look at what actually takes place, what Wittgenstein is trying to do in the Investigations has the same motive as the Tractatus – to focus our attention on what is really important. To go back to the analogy, if we bump our heads in the town centre then it is probably because the road has diverged to go round a large obstacle – a cathedral, perhaps, or a football ground – places that have importance in people’s lives. I think that what Wittgenstein is trying to do is to get us to focus on what really matters in our life. He once said ‘What is the importance of studying philosophy if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?’ At each stage Wittgenstein in the Investigations is trying to provoke us to remember the bodily nature of our life, and the way in which our physical existence shapes our thinking.

25. Wittgenstein wrote that ‘Philosophy simply puts everything before us’65, and also that philosophy ‘leaves everything as it is’66. If we gain a clear view of what is at issue, and our problems are therefore dissolved (our minds cease to be troubled) then no new knowledge has been provided. It is not that we now know the truth, rather it is that we now have clear minds. Whatever it is that we knew before, we know now; the difference is that now our minds are content with that knowledge. The account of language in the Investigations can therefore be seen as being governed by a particular method; and this method is one that undermines traditional metaphysical speculation. It puts limits to the nature of philosophy, in an attempt to ‘show the fly the way out of the fly bottle’. At this point, we can bring the method of the Investigations into harmony with the purpose of the Tractatus. As said above, the purpose of the Tractatus was two fold: to indicate that we cannot speak of value (it can only be shown), and to put limits to the scope of philosophy. The method of the Investigations reforms the second part of that project: instead of the division between sense and nonsense, ruling out metaphysical speculation, we have the method of grammatical investigation – ‘Don’t think! Look!’ – which accomplishes the same mystical objective: ‘The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions that bring itself into question’67. In both the Tractatus and the Investigations Wittgenstein is putting limits to philosophical endeavour.

26. In the Tractatus, this objective is given a specific mystical focus, and it is clear that this was his purpose, as revealed within the text and in his letter to Ficker. However, there is no such clarity about the purpose of the method of the Investigations – Wittgenstein is now silent about mysticism. It could be argued that this mysticism is part of what Wittgenstein has outgrown in the Tractatus, and that he is now free of these ‘delusions’. In order to counter that argument, I need to look at Wittgenstein’s readings of JG Frazer’s Golden Bough. They are crucial for my endeavour in this paper, for as Fergus Kerr has argued, Wittgenstein’s philosophical method ‘originated in his objections to Frazer’s reductively rationalistic accounts of primitive religious practices.’68 That may be putting the case too strongly, but, as I hope to show below, it is clear that there are strong conceptual links between his approach to religion, as shown in his remarks on Frazer, and his approach to philosophical problems.

‘The character of depth’
27. Wittgenstein wrote his Remarks69 in two periods, the first around 1931, the second after 1948. These remarks have been described as one of the ‘most radically instructive sources for the critical comprehension of ritual’70, and they are certainly the most extensive comments that Wittgenstein compiled on religious belief. Frazer’s account of ritual in the Golden Bough was concerned to demonstrate an evolution in human consciousness from a state of magical belief, through a state of religious belief, to a final enlightened state of scientific belief. Wittgenstein took great exception to this, principally because it made religious beliefs look like an error, and thus portrayed religion as something that was essentially rational in character. Consider his remarks on the practice of sun worship; whereas on Frazer’s account the rite is a supposedly magical process, undertaken in order to summon the sun, Wittgenstein simply points out that ‘toward morning, when the sun is about to rise, rites of daybreak are celebrated by the people, but not during the night, when they simply burn lamps’71. In other words, it is not the case that the people of this culture were trying to manipulate the sun by their actions, in a pseudo-mechanical fashion. If that were the case then the community would try and apply this mechanism at a time when it was more useful to them. Instead, their rites of daybreak need to be seen as a form of worship, not science, and not as something reducible to science either. Wittgenstein wrote ‘I believe that the attempt to explain is already therefore wrong’, and later, ‘No opinion serves as the foundation for a religious symbol. And only an opinion can involve an error’72. Elsewhere73 he writes, ‘I believe that the characteristic feature of primitive man is that he does not act from opinions (contrary to Frazer).’ He invites us to consider other examples of similar actions: ‘Kissing the picture of one’s beloved. That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at satisfaction and achieves it. Or rather, it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied’74. For Wittgenstein, religious expression is something that is wholly natural, ‘One could almost say that man is a ceremonial animal…men also perform actions which bear a characteristic peculiar to themselves, and these actions could be called ritualistic actions… the characteristic feature of a ritualistic action is not at all a view, an opinion’75. On Wittgenstein’s account, then, people undertake ritual actions in order to appease something like a religious instinct, not because of their acceptance of a particular theory. In all these remarks Wittgenstein is trying to provoke an awareness of the way in which large areas of human life are not founded upon reason or theory, and here, the correspondence with James’ attack on rationalism is manifest.

28. The way in which Wittgenstein develops this understanding is by talking about ‘depth’. In his consideration of the Beltane fire festival, Wittgenstein wrote76 ‘Besides these similarities, what seems to be most striking is the dissimilarity of all these rites. It is a multiplicity of faces with common features which continually emerges here and there. And one would like to draw lines connecting these common ingredients. But then one part of our account would still be missing, namely that which brings this picture into connection with our own feelings and thoughts. This part gives the account its depth.’ Then, later, when considering the part of the ritual which involved a make believe thrusting of a man into the fire, ‘It is now clear that what gives this practice depth is its connection with the burning of a man’. The important thing about a ritual action, that which allows it to have the character of a ritual action, is this dimension of depth. Depth is the engagement with a person at a non-rational, non-theoretical level – a response which is not consciously mediated by our intelligence. Wittgenstein develops this idea further when he considers the distribution of pieces of a specially baked cake – the recipient of one particular piece is the person who is to be sacrificed, ‘We see here something that looks like the last vestige of drawing lots. And, through this aspect, it suddenly gains depth’77. Wittgenstein considers a historical explanation for this ritual, but for him such an explanation is thin, ‘I want to say: the deep, the sinister, do not depend on the history of the practice having been like this….the deep and the sinister do not become apparent merely by our coming to know the history of the external action, rather it is we who ascribe them from an inner experience’78.

29. Before the remark on man as a ceremonial animal referred to above, Wittgenstein wrote

‘How could fire or the similarity of fire to the sun have failed to make an impression on the awakening mind of man? But perhaps not “Because he can’t explain it” (the foolish superstition of our time) – for will an explanation make it less impressive?… I don’t mean that just fire must make an impression on every one. Fire no more than any other phenomenon, and one thing will impress this person and another that. For no phenomenon is in itself particularly mysterious, but any of them can become so for us, and the characteristic feature of the awakening mind of man is precisely the fact that a phenomenon comes to have meaning for him.’

Thus for Wittgenstein, the explanation for ritual lies not in a mistaken hypothesis, which falsely elevates rationality, but in the way in which a rite can be perceived as ‘deep’, ie as something which provokes a sense of awe and connectedness, or a sense of the transcendent. As Fergus Kerr has put it, ‘What it is that is deep, about religious rituals as well as magic, is evidently that they bring us into significant relationship with these earthly mundane phenomena.’79 What is distinctive, then, about a religious ritual or belief, is the dimension of depth that is involved, and by this Wittgenstein is thinking of the way in which such a belief is intimately connected with the life of the religious participant, and the way in which the activity provides meaning for the participant. These are not activities which ‘proceed from ratiocination’, rather they are activities which are rooted in our biological and instinctual inheritance.

Metaphysics as a kind of magic
30. At this point, we can make a clear link with the method of philosophy that Wittgenstein develops in the Investigations, for it seems that there is a connection between the depth of a religious ritual, and the depth involved in a grammatical investigation: the ‘depth’ is the same thing in both cases, indicating the way in which the activities have a mystical aspect – a degree of meaning which cannot be articulated or theorised80. As §111 of the Investigations puts it ‘The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language – Let us ask ourselves, why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (and that is what the depth of philosophy is).’ In both cases Wittgenstein is looking to wean us away from our predilection for theory-driven explanations, which allocate a foundational role to rationality. Neither language nor religious ritual are based upon a particular conception or theory, they are simply dimensions of human existence, they shape what it means to BE human. As such they do not stand in need of theoretical justification: language does not proceed from ratiocination81.

31. The link with his wider philosophy becomes clear when we consider some remarks that Wittgenstein wrote at the same time as his remarks on Frazer, which are worth reproducing in full82:

‘I now believe that it would be right to begin my book with remarks about metaphysics as a kind of magic.
But in doing this I must not make a case for magic nor may I make fun of it.
The depth of magic should be preserved. –
Indeed, here the elimination of magic has itself the character of magic.
For, back then, when I began talking about the ‘world’ (and not about this tree or table), what else did I want but to keep something higher spellbound in my words?’

32. There is much that needs to be unpacked in these remarks83, but for the purposes of this essay it is enough to point out that Wittgenstein sees metaphysics as having a similar function to magical rites (ie they engage with us at a deep level) and that ‘back then’ – ie in the Tractatus – Wittgenstein was trying ‘to keep something higher spellbound’. Rather like the potato shoots searching for the light the metaphysical systems are seeking to appease a thirst for depth – the ‘immortal longings’ that Kerr describes in his recent book. It is in this sense that metaphysics is a kind of magic, for the metaphysical systems are the intellectual equivalent of the rites considered by Frazer – they can provoke a sense of awe and reverence, they engage with our need for the transcendent: ‘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’84. Wittgenstein saw the search for an overarching metaphysical explanation as something which could not be sustained philosophically. However, at the same time he saw the great metaphysical systems of the past as among the noblest works of mankind85, akin to religious art: metaphysics understood as a poetic or magical ‘this is where I stand (and this is how it looks from here)’ is ultimately religious, a form of theology, and it allows for a proper recognition and validation of our human nature which does not prioritise ratiocination. It is in this sense that ‘all that philosophy can do is destroy idols’ for an idol is that which is put into the place of God and given divine authority, whether a golden calf or a metaphysical system. By limiting, from within, what philosophy can actually do Wittgenstein is denying any metaphysical system that stature. Metaphysical systems cannot provide final answers for ‘the questions that trouble us’, because the form of ‘objective truth’ which they are attempting to attain is impossible – in just the same way that it is impossible to say in an aesthetic question that, for instance, Rembrandt’s portraits are more ‘true’ than Caravaggio’s.

Wittgenstein’s real need
33. Wittgenstein’s purpose, throughout his philosophical career, from the Tractatus through the Investigations, to On Certainty, was to show philosophy that it has limits, and that it cannot go beyond them. In doing this, he hoped to make clear what the status of philosophy was, and why it was of ultimately little importance86. It is in this light that I think we should interpret PI §108:

‘…but what becomes of logic now? Its rigour seems to be giving way here. – But in that case doesn’t logic altogether disappear? – For how can it lose its rigour? Of course not by our bargaining any of its rigour out of it. – The preconceived idea of crystalline purity can only be removed by turning our whole examination around. (One might say: the axis of reference of our examination must be rotated, but about the fixed point of our real need.)’

The ‘real need’ which Wittgenstein was always concerned to meet was the need to stop philosophy going beyond its limits, and confusing people about the nature of value. The ‘crystalline purity’ of the Tractatus needs to be removed by changing the focus of the enquiry, onto the way in which language actually works, but keeping constant the mystical outlook which prevails over the whole.

34. In his lecture on ethics in 1929 (when he was given carte blanche to discuss whatever he wished and chose ethics because he wanted to talk about something which had general importance) Wittgenstein argues

‘not only can no description that I can think of therefore do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but…I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the grounds of its significance. That is to say: I see clearly now that these nonsensical expressions [the Tractatus] were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was of their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world, that is to say, beyond significant language. My whole tendency, and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk ethics or religion was to run against the boundaries of language.’87

Wittgenstein is rejecting the method of the Tractatus because the account in the Tractatus is still one that is dominated by an intellectual approach, wholly governed by theory, which has a ‘crystalline purity’. Moreover, he was still trying to say something about value, he was still trying to capture the essence of the mystical in words – ‘to keep something higher spellbound’. In the Investigations, not only has the understanding of language been changed to something deeper and more human, but Wittgenstein himself has stopped trying to say anything, to ‘conjure up’ something by his words, and he remains much more authentically – mystically – silent.


35. In this essay I hope to have shown that Wittgenstein’s philosophical outlook was governed by a commitment to mysticism, understood in the Jamesian sense. In both the Tractatus and the Investigations Wittgenstein is attempting to put limits to the realm of philosophical enquiry, in order that what is of most value – ‘the higher’ – is then able to be seen clearly. He is opposed to an over-emphasis on, and mis-application of, scientific modes of enquiry – rationalism. His philosophy changed when he realised that the outlook of the Tractatus lacked depth, and was still a metaphysical work – he was trying to ‘whistle it’. The Investigations is a much more successful and rigourous attempt to achieve the same end: the undermining of metaphysical speculation and the attainment of an authentic mystical silence.

36. It seems to me that there are two lines of enquiry which would be fruitful for further investigation:

a) Is the Jamesian understanding of mysticism satisfactory? James can be criticised on philosophical grounds, but also (much more interestingly) on religious grounds, for misrepresenting the character of mystical discourse. If James did have the determining influence on Wittgenstein which I suggest, it would be worth considering if flaws in James were echoed in Wittgenstein. Furthermore, does the method of the Investigations stand independently of the mystical perspective which formed the framework for its development? Are there ways in which Wittgenstein’s understanding of language, particularly with respect to religious discourse, is compromised by his apophatic stance? I would argue that Wittgenstein’s method can stand independently of his mystical perspective, but it is a moot point;

b) If the method of the later Wittgenstein is accepted as valid, what is the status of religious doctrine, especially within Christianity, with its emphasis on creeds and doctrinal formulations? It seems clear to me that an acceptance of Wittgenstein’s method throws open a new way of understanding the creeds which is both more devotionally fruitful, and more in tune with the Church Fathers, but in any case, a simple statement that ‘the creed is true’ seems impossible, after Wittgenstein. Fergus Kerr has written that ‘The history of theology might even be written in terms of periodic struggles with the metaphysical inheritance’88 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.

Sam Norton
Summer 2000
Heythrop College
This bibliography lists all works that I have read in the course of researching the paper. Not every work proved to be relevant for my thesis. I would like to acknowledge a debt of gratitude firstly to Dr Brian Clack, for his teaching as well as his writings, and also to Dr Stephen Law.

Works by Wittgenstein:
Notebooks 1914-1916, Second Edition, Ed G H von Wright and GEM Anscombe, University of Chicago Press, 1979
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP), Routledge, 1995
Philosophical Investigations (PI), Blackwell 1991
On Certainty, Blackwell 1993
Culture and Value, Blackwell 1994
Philosophical Occasions, ed Klagge and Normann, Hackett 1993. (This contains the Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, the Lecture on Ethics and ‘Philosophie’.)

Commentary on Wittgenstein
Ray Monk, Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, Vintage 1990
Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein: a Religious Point of View?, Routledge, 1993
Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, Blackwell, 1986
Paul Johnston, Wittgenstein and Moral Philosophy, Routledge, 1989
D Z Phillips, Wittgenstein and Religion, Macmillan 1993
Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Elephant Paperbacks 1996 (1973)
Brian R Clack, Wittgenstein, Frazer and Religion, Macmillan 1999
Brian R Clack, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion, Edinburgh University Press, 1999
Cyril Barrett, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief, Blackwell 1991
M O’C Drury, The Danger of Words and writings on Wittgenstein, Thoemmes Press 1996
PMS Hacker, Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy, Blackwell 1996
Fergus Kerr, Wittgenstein’s Kink, included in Beyond Secular Reason, ed Philip Blond, Routledge, 1997

Other works cited
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin Classics 1985
Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge University Press, 1995.


  1. I’m not at all sure what to make of this — that is, how far I agree or not with Wittgenstein as presented. What I think is absent is a consideration of original sin. In my view of things, original sin shows itself in our having, in general, an incorrect metaphysics, the word taken in the sense of what we unthinkingly take as real (and not). Our everyday language is thoroughly dualist, having one vocabulary (with connotations) for mental events and another for material events.

    Hence, my inclination is to say that if we want to do something about original sin, we need to get metaphysical. And, of course, that would put metaphysics squarely at the center of theology — it is the lack of metaphysical inquiry in much modern theology that I find objectionable. It makes all the difference in the world whether we think that consciousness emerged in time from a non-conscious substrate, or if we think it is fundamental. Or, for that matter, whether we think of space and time as primary or secondary qualities. I could go on.

    On a different note, Merrell-Wolff at one point says that the only reason mystical states of consciousness are considered ineffable is that they are uncommon. If they were common, they could be talked about as easily as we talk about love, or being hungry, or values. True, these are all in a sense ineffable — just not mysterious. In any case, I’m tempted to say Thank God that Merrell-Wolff, Bernadette Roberts, and a slew of others did not obey the injunction to remain silent. There is real content in what they say, stuff that philosophy can sink its teeth in. Or as Lessing said, “Revelation was not rational when revealed, but revealed so that it may become rational.” (or something like that). If to do this, philosophy must trample on conventional language, so be it.

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