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Wittgenstein and Religious Belief

  • John W. Cook


I find myself in profound disagreement with Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion and hence in disagreement also with those philosophers who have undertaken to elaborate and defend Wittgenstein's position. My principal objection is to the idea that religion is a language-game (or perhaps that each religion is a language-game) and that because of the kind of language-game it is, religious believers are not to be thought of as necessarily harbouring beliefs about the world over and above their secular beliefs. I reject this position, not because I think that there are language-games and that religion happens not to be one, but because I find the very idea of a language-game to be indefensible. Put another way, I find myself out of sympathy with the recent idea that in philosophy of religion we ought to be discussing something called ‘religious language’ or ‘the kind of language involved in religious beliefs’.



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1 See my ‘Magic, Witchcraft and Science,’ Philosophical Investigations 6, No. 1 (01 1983), 236.

2 Religious Studies 22, No. 2 (06 1986), 165180.

3 I will refer to Wittgenstein's works by means of the following abbreviations: PI for Philosophical Investigations, Z for Zettel, OC for On Certainty, RFM for Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, LFM for Wittgenstein's Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, B B for The Blue and Brown Books, CV for Culture and Value, PR for Philosophical Remarks, PG for Philosophical Grammar, and RPP for Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. II.

4 ‘Four Forms of Scepticism’, in Moore, G. E., Philosophical Papers (London: Macmillan, 1959), 225226. See my ‘Moore and Skepticism’, in Knowledge and Mind, Ginet, Carl and Shoemaker, Sydney (eds) (Oxford University Press, 1983), 325.

5 ‘The Metaphysics of Wittgenstein's On Certainty’, Philosophical Investigations 8 (04, 1985), 81119; see esp. 110115.

6 See also RFM, I, §§148–152, where Wittgenstein deals with the same example, although in somewhat less detail.

7 See, for example, the exchange between Kai Nielsen and Ilham Dilman in Philosophical Investigations 4, No. 2 (Spring 1981), 5060, and Nielsen's essay ‘Wisdom and Dilman on the Scope of Reason in Religion’, Philosophical Investigations 3, No. 4 (Fall 1980), 114.

8 ‘Meaning and Religious Language’, in Reason and Religion, Brown, Stuart C. (ed.) (Cornell University Press, 1977), 202.

9 Their faithfulness to Wittgenstein on this matter can be seen on the following pages of Culture and Value: pp. 28, 32, and 64.

10 Op. cit., 178.

11 ‘Meaning and Religious Language’, op. cit., 199200.

12 Ibid., 196.

13 Ibid., 202.

14 Ibid., 197–198. Phillips, it is worth remarking, cites Winch's story with approval as an illustration of the role of ‘primitive reactions in concept-formation in religion’ (op. cit., 178).

15 Op. cit., 178, emphasis added.

16 ‘Remarks on Frazer's “Golden Bough”’, The Human World 3 (05 1971), p. 29.

17 Evans-Pritchard, E. E., Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 12.

18 Ibid., 17.

19 I have discussed Wittgenstein's account of religion more fully in ‘Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein’, Religious Studies 23 (06 1987), 199219.


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