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The Earlier Wittgenstein on the Notion of Religious Attitude

  • Chon Tejedor (a1)

I defend a new interpretation of Wittgenstein's notion of religious (or ethical) attitude in the Tractatus, one that rejects three key views from the secondary literature: firstly, the view that, for Wittgenstein, the willing subject is a transcendental condition for the religious attitude; secondly, the view that the religious attitude is an emotive response to the world or something closely modelled on this notion of emotive response; and thirdly, the view that, although the religious and ethical pseudo-propositions of the Tractatus are nonsensical, they nevertheless succeed in expressing the religious attitude endorsed by Wittgenstein. In connection to the first, I argue that the notion of willing subject as transcendental condition is abandoned by Wittgenstein in the Notebooks and is no longer a feature of his position in the Tractatus. In connection to the second, I argue that the religious attitude is dispositional rather than emotive for Wittgenstein: it is a disposition to use signs in a way that demonstrates one's conceptual clarity. Finally, in connection to the third, I argue that the religious or ethical attitude is strongly ineffable in that it cannot be described, expressed or conveyed by language at all.

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1 Joachim Schulte notes: ‘for Wittgenstein genuine religiousness is always connected with decisions on how to lead a decent life. One might say that his view of religion was a profoundly ethical one’ – Schulte J.On a Remark by Jukundus’, Synthese Library #346: Interactive Wittgenstein: Essays in Memory of Georg Henrik Von Wright, De Pellegrin E. (ed.), (Springer, 2011) 183208, 186. Severin Schroeder explains that, even in his later philosophical period, Wittgenstein's interest was primarily with a notion of religion ‘that he personally found appealing: comprehensible, intellectually respectable and morally attractive’ – Schroeder S.The Tightrope Walker’, Ratio 20: 4 (2007) 442463, 444

2 References are drawn from: Wittgenstein L.Notebooks 1914–1916 (NB), eds. von Wright G. and Anscombe G. E. M., trans. Anscombe G. E. M., (Oxford: Blackwell, 1961); Wittgenstein L.Prototractatus (PTLP), eds. McGuinness B. F., Nyberg T. & von Wright G., transl. McGuinness B. F. & Pears D. F. (London: Routledge, 1971); Wittgenstein L.Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP), trans. Pears D.F. and McGuinness B.F., (London: Routledge, 1961); Wittgenstein L.A Lecture on Ethics’ (LOE), The Philosophical Review, 74: 1 (1965), 312. Although ten years separate the writing of the Tractatus and that of ‘A Lecture on Ethics’, Wittgenstein's approach to religiousness and the ethical remains so close in these two texts that they are, in my view, best examined alongside each other.

3 Here, I favour the expressions ‘religious attitude’ and ‘religiousness’ because I feel they better capture Wittgenstein's idiosyncratic understanding of the ethical, which is quite distant from our contemporary conceptions of ethics.

4 Different versions of this view appear in: Morris M.Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (New York: Routledge, 2008) 320328; Schroeder S.Wittgenstein: The Way Out of the Fly-Bottle, (Cambridge: Polity, 2006) 99104; and Stockhof M.World and Life as One. Ethics and Ontology in Wittgenstein's Early Thought. (Palo Alto: Standford University Press, 2002), 202203.

5 Different versions of this view emerge in Morris, op. cit. note 4, 324 and McGuinness B.Approaches to Wittgenstein: Collected Papers, (London: Routledge, 2002) 141, amongst others.

6 Different versions of this view emerge in Stokhof, op. cit. note 4 and in Morris, op. cit. note 4, 337–338.

7 See, for instance: Morris, op. cit. note 4 320–328; Schroeder, op. cit. note 4, 99–104; and Stokhof, op. cit. note 4, 202–203. Peter Hacker places the emphasis on the view that the willing subject is the condition of representation – Hacker P. M. S.Insight and Illusion. Themes in the Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7380.

8 NB 5.8.16.

9 TLP 6.421.

10 TLP 6.423.

11 TLP 6.421.

12 TLP 5.641.

13 Indeed, the expression ‘metaphysical subject’ is only used in two entries of the Notebooks: in NB 4.8.16 and in NB 2.9.16.

14 Bernard Williams mentions this difficulty in his Wittgenstein and Idealism’, Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973–1980, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 144163, 146. David Pears also admits that this is a serious problem – Pears D.The False Prison, Vol. 1, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) 184185.

15 See NB 12.10.16; 15.10.16; 17.10.16; 20.10.16; 4.11.16; 9.11.16; and 19.11.16

16 That Wittgenstein and Engelmann repeatedly discuss Schopenhauer's views during their stay in Olmütz emerges in McGuinness B.Wittgenstein: A Life. Young Ludwig 1889–1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 252253.

17 These letters are cited in Monk R.Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 152153.

18 I am borrowing this expression from Warren Goldfarb and Peter Sullivan – Goldfarb W.Metaphysics as Nonsense: On Cora Diamond's The Realistic Spirit’, Journal of Philosophical Research 52, 5773 (1997), 71; Sullivan P.“The General Propositional Form is a Variable.” (Tractatus 4.53)’, Mind 113, 449, 4356 (2004), 43.

19 Tejedor C.Solipsism in the Tractatus’, Sentido y sinsentido: Wittgenstein y la crítica del lenguaje, ed. Moya C., (Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2008) and Tejedor, C. (Forthcoming) An End to Philosophy: Language, Metaphysics and Value in Wittgenstein's Philosophy.

20 On this, see also Kremer M.The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense’, Noûs 35, 3973 (2001).

21 Letter cited in McGuinness, op. cit. note 11, ch. 9. Some commentators have argued that Wittgenstein may be merely trying to entice a reluctant publisher by presenting his book as having an ethical point. In my view, however, Wittgenstein's insistence on the ethical dimension of the Tractatus needs to be taken seriously. On this, see Glock H-J, A Wittgenstein Dictionary (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) 330 and Tejedor (Forthcoming) op. cit, note 14.

22 TLP 6.42, TLP 6.421.

23 I develop this further in Tejedor (Forthcoming) op. cit, note 14. Although our views ultimately diverge, I am indebted to Marie McGinn's discussion of formal concepts for the genesis of my thoughts on this issue – McGinn M.Elucidating the Tractatus: Wittgenstein's Early Philosophy of Logic and Language. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) ch 7.

24 As we will see below, propositions, like thoughts, are representing facts for Wittgenstein (TLP 3.14 & TLP 3.12).

25 TLP 6.37.

26 I am grateful to Anthony O'Hear for his generous discussion of this objection.

27 Weil S.Notebooks, II, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976) 402; Weil S.Waiting for God, (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001) 99; Weil S.Gravity and Grace, (London: Routledge, 2004) 3233.

28 TLP 4.027.

29 TLP 4.11.

30 TLP 4.21ff.

31 This has been insightfully discussed elsewhere, notably by Zalabardo – Zalabardo J. L.The Tractatus on Logical Consequence’, European Journal of Philosophy 18: 3, 425442 (2010) 431.

32 TLP 4.46.

33 TLP 4.4611.

34 TLP 4.461.

35 TLP 6.37. Note indeed that Wittgenstein's use of truth tables to reveal the combinatorial nature of sense and his view that truth tables render the signs for logical connectives superfluous is incompatible with the Causal Necessity View. For his whole approach is predicated on the idea that only propositions connected to each other by virtue of conceptual relations (i.e. by virtue of relations that can be transparently revealed through logical analysis) can entail each other. Wittgenstein's rejection of causal necessity therefore runs very deep and permeates his entire position in the Tractatus.

36 There are other respects in which contingency and necessity are ‘purely logical’ for Wittgenstein, but it is this notion of independence from reality that is crucial for our purposes.

37 Glock op. cit. note 16, 269–274 and Tejedor C.Sense and Simplicity: Wittgenstein's Argument for Simple Objects’, Ratio (new series) XVI, 272289 (2003).

38 TLP 2.0211.

39 TLP 2.0212.

40 TLP 4.6, 4.461, 4.463. Glock, op. cit. note 16, 198–202.

41 TLP 5.136–5.1362.

42 cf. TLP 6.321, TLP 6.36.

43 TLP 5.136–5.1362. For further details, see Tejedor (Forthcoming) op. cit, note 14.

44 TLP 6.54.

45 TLP 6.37.

46 TLP 2, TLP 2.141, TLP 3, TLP 3.14, TLP 5.542, TLP 5.5421.

47 LOE, 11 [My italics].

48 In particular, the religious attitude is not the type of emotive attitude characterised by the abandoning or letting go of desire. For desire (‘the empirical will that is of interest only to psychology’ – TLP 6.423) is also factive for Wittgenstein, and, therefore, in and of itself, devoid of either positive or negative ethical value. Note indeed that both pursuing desire and attempting to let go of desire can be done out of an illusory sense of absolute control and therefore be unethical.

49 I am on this point indebted to Severin Schroeder's intriguing discussion of Wittgenstein's later approach to religiousness – Schroeder, op. cit. note 1, 456.

50 LOE 8.

51 In this respect, they do not have the kind of relation to the attitude in question that sentences might bear to the emotions they express: emotive sentences can be viewed as expressing emotions without distorting them in this fundamental way.

52 LOE 11.

53 LOE 10.

54 LOE 11.

55 I discuss this in Tejedor (Forthcoming) op. cit, note 14.

56 TLP 6.431.

57 Sentences also lose any purported ethical edge when they are used to express senseless tautologies and contradictions, as I discuss in Tejedor (Forthcoming) op. cit, note 14.

58 TLP 6.4.

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