The Religious Sense: Ludwig Wittgenstein
(This was an article titled, “Thought in Movement,” by Carlo Dignola, published in the December 2000 issue of Traces, the magazine of the Catholic Movement, Communion and Liberation.)
Thought In Movement
By Carlo Dignola
“Christianity is not a doctrine, it is not a theory of what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but rather the description of a real event in man’s life.” This explosive observation written among personal notes in 1937 by Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, is a patent example of how human intelligence, exercised in a way consonant with its nature, not only does not contradict faith, but even manages to glimpse a possibility of it.
Wittgenstein was certainly one of the most acute, powerful, and anti-conformist minds of the century; he is considered by every serious history of philosophy to be one of the great “destroyers of metaphysics.” During his lifetime he published only one book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In this work, in which his purpose was to say everything that can be said in philosophy, and only that, he deliberately was silent on everything that concerned religion, and more generally the world of values, tracing in an almost perfect logical system a razor’s edge, beyond which human thought is expressly forbidden to go. “Ethics,” wrote Wittgenstein, including in this also the entire sphere of religious experience, “cannot be formulated.” It belongs to silence. We knew this about Wittgenstein, the relentless critic of every kind of spiritualistic talk, the Logical Positivist who forbade the senseless chatter of religion. Piece-by-piece, however, in recent years, as the diaries and notebooks are published in which he jotted down, one after the other on the same pages, philosophical observations and details of his private life friendships, affections, opinions on concerts by Brahms and Beethoven, and solutions for highly complex mathematical problems–it emerges that Wittgenstein was not only the inventor of a philosophy that acted like a policeman guarding the boundary between reason and religion, but also that his elaborations of philosophical thoughts were constantly and almost obsessively stimulated and supported by explicit questions about human existence.
Michele Ranchetti, the editor of a fine edition of Wittgenstein’s diaries that appeared last year (Movimenti del pensiero, Movements of Thought [Italy]), rightly observes that Wittgenstein’s manner of studying philosophy is the “perennial examination of conscience of those who–as he himself says–cannot avoid seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”
It is well known that Wittgenstein chose his words very carefully. We realize only now that many of his less gifted followers have, in order to banish from philosophy every question of meaning, made use of a thinker who on the contrary penetrated into the “infernal” world of logic–as he called it–starting always from metaphysical questions. Or rather, to be more precise, he started from a “wrestling match” with Christianity and with the figure of Jesus Himself that lasted his entire life.
Naturally, this does not mean that Wittgenstein was a Christian; he was Jewish, even though–with great guilt–he tried for a long time to hide it, in the years when anti-Semitism was rampant all over Europe. Part of his family felt close to the German Protestant culture, its work ethic, and its moralistic and intimate conception of Christianity. And yet his intellectual and ethical touchstone seems to have been Catholic Christianity. Essentially, he never embraced faith (“everything,” he wrote in 1920 in a letter to his friend Paul Engelmann, “arises naturally from the fact that I have no faith”). Perhaps he never encountered it in an outstanding personality (even though his biographies reveal that for a period he thought of entering a monastery),–and yet he always felt Christ to be a stumbling block not only of his own, but of every system of thought. He had intuitions about the figure of Christ marked by a breathtaking profundity and clarity, which only a genius could have grasped so immediately and directly.
But these facts must not deceive: it is not a certainty he might have reached (although he would turn his investigations in the last years of his life); it is not faith that drew him toward Christianity.
Rather, it was a basic loyalty to the data of experience, which Wittgenstein understood mainly as “linguistic experience.” This splendid observation reveals precisely his way of seeking, explaining what religion is, beginning with language: “There is no one here, and yet I speak and thank and ask. Is this talking and thanking and asking therefore an error? Rather, I would say, this is a marvelous thing.” In this sense Wittgenstein appears to be a strange kind of realist philosopher: a realist “of signs,” we might perhaps say, and not “of things.”
He approaches Christianity, too, as a datum of linguistic experience that cannot easily be liquidated. “Just as the insect buzzes around the light,” he wrote, “so do I around the New Testament.” Some of his intuitions are astonishing in their exactness, which is often not found even in twentieth century catechisms. We could say that Wittgenstein does not have faith, but he intuits quite well what faith is: “I need certainty–not wisdom, dreams, speculation–and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart needs, my soul, not my speculative intellect. Because it is my soul, with its passions, almost with its flesh and its blood, which must be redeemed, not my abstract spirit.”
Christianity, Wittgenstein thus says, is not a doctrine. It is not an idea or a written word that can save man. “The Bible is nothing more than a book in front of me… This document cannot, in itself, ‘bind me’ to any faith in the doctrines it contains–as little as any other document could that might fall into my hands. If I have to believe in these doctrines, it is not because this and not that is told to me. Rather, they must be clear and obvious to me: and by this I do not mean only teachings of ethics but historical teachings.” The adjective “historical” here indicates exactly the unfolding over time of that category of “event.” It is not the words one hears in church that give the true motivation for adhering to Christianity: “Preaching can be a preliminary condition of faith, but through what happens in it; it cannot set faith into motion. Faith begins with faith.”
Wittgenstein, by the force of logical reasoning, realizes that the event of belief is something original, a primum that goes beyond logic but that does not contradict it in the least, and he understands very well that this depends on a fact, and on the position that man takes in front of this fact as a consequence.
The precision of these judgments is impressive, and yet Wittgenstein is honest enough to realize–and write–that “all this is naturally not Christianity,” that his intelligence and even his great moral strength have not managed to convert him. “This tending toward the absolute… appears to me as something splendid, sublime, but I myself aim my gaze at earthly things–unless ‘God’ should ‘visit’ me.” “It is also clear,” he wrote, “that this faith is a grace.”
Philosophizing, on this plane, is worth very little; a treatise will not solve the problem of existence. Wittgenstein wrote this very clearly, as was his style: “If you are not ready to sacrifice your work for something higher, it will not be blessed in any way. Because it obtains its height from the fact that you place it at its true height in relationship with the ideal.”
Wittgenstein realized–differently from what was indicated by the mentality of the environment in which he grew up–that it is not an effort that saves man. He knew first of all that he was not capable of this (“Know yourself, and you will see that you are always and in any case a poor sinner”), and that anyway it would not be enough. Rather, he sought refuge–a little like Franz Kafka–in what he considered an ethic but what we could also call a “human position,” a proper disposition, which does not guarantee salvation but invokes it (“I am like a beggar”).
A line in the diaries may summarize, in an almost prophetic manner, the meaning of this reflection on Christianity, as an event of the spirit that is still indecipherable; a line that we could read, at the close of this century, as an anti-Nietzschean motto, the opposite of the “death of God” Nietzsche proclaimed. “In metropolitan civilization,” we read in Movimenti del pensiero, “the spirit can only withdraw into a corner. And yet, it is not at all worn out or superfluous, but, like an (eternal) witness, floats above the rubble of culture–almost like an avenger of God. As though it awaited a new incarnation."