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Ludwig Wittgenstein in Rowan Williams's Theological Account of Language

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024


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Copyright © 2016 Provincial Council of the English Province of the Order of Preachers

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1 “Wittgenstein, I suppose, is one of the biggest influences on my thinking over the years. … But almost equally important is Merleau‐Ponty, the Phenomenology of Perception. … Wittgenstein in terms of embedding language in practice, and Merleau‐Ponty in terms of showing you the richness of simple acts of perception.” (Rowan Williams, ‘It's intelligence all the way down’ [Interview]. Theos Think Tank (20 October 2014). In the same interview, Williams recalls that reading Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations as a third‐year undergraduate made him think, “Wow, now I see some things.”

2 Williams, Rowan, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)Google Scholar. References to this book are usually in the form (EW 104), etc.

3 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico‐Philosophicus, trans Pears, D. F. and McGuinness, B. F. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961)Google Scholar, Preface, pp. 3‐4. Further references to this work will be in the form (TLP 2.1), etc.

4 The Blue Book, 4, in Wittgenstein, Ludwig, The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958)Google Scholar, emphasis original.

5 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, ed. Anscombe, G.E.M. and Rhees, R., trans Anscombe, G.E.M. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953)Google Scholar. Quotations in this article are from the 3rd (2001) edition.

6 Pears, David, Wittgenstein (n.p.: Fontana/Collins, 1971), p. 16Google Scholar.

7 Ibid., p. 37.

8 The examples include: reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play‐acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, and thanking.

9 Catherine Pickstock suggests that what Williams offers in The Edge of Words is “something more like a metaphysics.” —Pickstock, C. J. C., “Matter and Mattering: The Metaphysics of Rowan Williams,” Modern Theology 31 (2015), pp. 599617, at 599CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Adorno, Theodor W., Philosophische Terminologie I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), pp. 5556Google Scholar, translation by Bill Vallicella at Accessed 19 May 2015.

11 Ibid. See also Finlayson, John Gordon, “On Not Being Silent in the Darkness: Adorno's Singular Apophaticism,” Harvard Theological Review 105 (2012), pp. 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Adorno, Theodor W., Negative Dialectics, trans. Ashton, E. B., (New York: Continuum, 2005), 6:20Google Scholar. (First published in German in 1966.)

13 Ibid., 6:21.

14 MacCulloch, Dairmaid, Silence: A Christian History (London: Allen Lane, 2013), p. 239Google Scholar, reflecting on MacKinnon, Donald, ‘Tillich, Frege, Kittel: Some Reflections on a Dark Theme,’ in Explorations in Theology 5 (London: Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1979), pp. 136–7Google Scholar.

15 Myers, Benjamin, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T & T Clark, 2012), p. 35Google Scholar.

16 Shortt, Rupert, Rowan's Rule: A Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 97Google Scholar.

17 Myers, Christ the Stranger …, pp. 13ff.

18 Ibid., p. xi.

19 Shortt, Rowan's Rule …, 98‐99.

20 Ibid., p. 100.

21 Williams, Rowan, ‘Poetic and religious imagination,’ Theology 80 (1977), pp. 178187CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Ibid., p. 186, Williams's emphasis.

23 Ibid., p. 181.

24 Highton, Mike, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams. (London: SCM Press, 2004), pp. 7577Google Scholar, including quotation from Williams, Rowan, On Christian Theology: Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 198Google Scholar.

25 Rowan Williams, quoted in Higton, Difficult Gospel …, p. 79.

26 Rowan Williams, Religious Faith and Human Rights: Lecture for the London School of Economics and Political Science's Forum on Religion, in its Programme for the Study of Religion and Non‐Religion (1 May 2008), p. 4.

27 Ibid., p. 2.

28 Ibid., p. 3.

29 Ibid., pp. 4‐5.

30 Williams, Rowan, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Revised end ed. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), p. 65Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., 65‐6.

32 Williams, Resurrection …, p. 66, quoting Williams, ‘Poetic and religious imagination,’ p. 182.

33 Williams, Resurrection …, p. 66.

34 Williams, Rowan, ‘Between Politics and Metaphysics: Reflections in the Wake of Gillian Rose,’ Modern Theology 11 (1995), p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Ibid., 6.

36 Williams, Rowan, ‘The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer,’ in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, edited by Higton, Mike (London: SCM Press, 2007), p. 195Google Scholar.

37 Williams, Resurrection …, pp. 111‐2.

38 Ibid., p. 198.

39 Rowan Williams, ‘To Speak Truly About God,’ The Marginalia Review of Books (27 May 2014)

40 Myers, Christ the Stranger …, p. 15.

41 Rowan Williams, ‘Why religion needs blasphemy,’ New Statesman, 27 May 2015. Excerpts at

42 Williams, Rowan, Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 92–3Google Scholar.

43 Williams, Rowan, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 39Google Scholar.

44 Ibid., p. 40.

45 Williams, Rowan, ‘A Ray of Darkness,’ in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46 Williams, ‘The Suspicion of Suspicion …,’ 195.