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Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief
by Cyril Barrett, S.J.
Blackwell, 285 pages, $44.95

As is well known, teachers are often in the habit of giving pop quizzes, and I indulge the habit here. Quick, who said the following? “Ordinary language … is the only language in which we can be sure of really grasping the phenomena.” Even people who have only a passing acquaintance with the trends of contemporary philosophy would be likely to guess Ludwig Wittgenstein as the author of this dictum, for who else in the twentieth century is more noted for elevating the status of ordinary language to the privileged rank of becoming the major object of philosophical reflection? But in fact, the author is none other than the physicist Werner Heisenberg, discoverer of the famous Uncertainty Principle and perhaps the one most responsible for radically disengaging our sense of ordinary reality from the world studied by physics: “We cannot describe atomic phenomena without ambiguity in any ordinary language,” he says. And yet it is in the same lecture that he concedes that the final recourse even for the scientist will always be the medium of ordinary language.

Perhaps it is this ineluctable reality that accounts for the extraordinary influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein in the world of contemporary thought. For strange as our world might seem when studied through the lens of physics, it nonetheless immediately strikes us, first of all, as our world, the place that for good or ill we must call home. And language, ordinary language, the language we learn so unselfconsciously from infancy, is the very medium of access to that world.

But as Heisenberg so startlingly showed, there lurks within this world a reality that must send the world of understanding mediated by ordinary language into a tailspin. And this must mean that in some way ordinary language, and the common sense that it reflects, hides within itself enigmas that, with proper reflection, can be teased out to reveal a world previously unsuspected by us in our unreflective moments.

Any careful student of Wittgenstein’s thought must sooner or later experience how extraordinarily laborious is the process of concentrating on ordinary language as the privileged locale for philosophy. Toward the end of his life, Wittgenstein traveled to Cornell for a series of lectures and private discussions with the faculty, one of whom recalled later: “Under the relentless probing and pushing of his enquiry, my head felt almost as if it were ready to burst. There was no quarter given—no sliding off the topic when it became difficult. I was absolutely exhausted when we concluded the discussion.”

For this reason, I think we are singularly lucky to have before us this fine study of Wittgenstein by Cyril Barrett, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. The book hardly absolves one from the labor required in order to understand Wittgenstein—that would be a betrayal, not an interpretation of the man—but it sets forth with admirable clarity the full range of his interests and lays to rest once and for all the hoary notion that a concentration on ordinary language represents a comedown for philosophy from its previously exalted heights of metaphysics and Platonic speculation.

It is true that Wittgenstein was a member, albeit a wary one, of the Vienna Circle, a band of logical positivists intensely hostile to metaphysics and to what they regarded as the pretensions of Hegelian idealism, and from whom A. J. Ayer drew his inspiration in his highly influential essay Language, Truth, and Logic. Few were the minds untouched by Ayer’s infuriatingly well-written polemic against the validity of any nonempirical statement regarding either aesthetics, ethics, or religion. No sooner was it written, however, than the school of logical positivism collapsed from its innate inability to justify its foundational principle of strict empiricism on the empirical grounds demanded by that principle.

Out of that failure came the turn to ordinary language analysis; but this school has in many ways never outgrown the suspicion toward metaphysics and all other forms of transcendent statement that it inherited from its predecessor, logical positivism. Thus one will find in the literature of this movement analysis of such burning questions as how the quantifiers “any” and “all” are not interchangeable (“any doctor will tell you that” versus “all doctors must take out malpractice insurance”). Something of a degeneration, one might think, from the glory days of Plato’s Academy—or even the Berlin lecture hall of Hegel.

But as Barrett shows in luminous detail, this characterization of ordinary language analysis, at least as it applies to Wittgenstein, is a caricature. On the contrary, the reader can clearly see the sheer intensity that the great philosopher brought to all his reflections on religion. (No wonder, one says to oneself, that his colleagues felt exhausted.) Indeed, Barrett’s book leads to the speculation that Wittgenstein will one day be known by historians of philosophy as this century’s closest analogue to Blaise Pascal—a dimension of him, by the way, that was completely missed in his disciple Ayer’s own book about him.

Oddly enough, the twentieth-century thinker that Wittgenstein most reminds one of is Karl Barth (a comparison Barrett himself most convincingly draws). This is particularly evident in Wittgenstein’s remark about the role of reason and argument in the mind of a believer, a point that nearly exactly transcribes Barth’s view of Anselm:

A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is to give their belief an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.

This is an astute insight, and one that no doubt stems from Wittgenstein’s sharp sense of how arguments actually function within a linguistic world. And it helps to illustrate how his concentration on the everyday world of language in no way muffles the metaphysical and religious sensibility that permeates the human soul. On the contrary, in Wittgenstein’s case, linguistic analysis has provided access to insights into the nature of faith and ethical behavior that rival any other achievement of our century. One is reminded on this point of an extraordinary passage from Pascal on the nature of faith:

If [Christ] did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. But if I am REALLY to be saved, what I need is certainty—not wisdom, dreams, or speculation—and this certainty is faith. And faith is what is needed by my heart, my soul, not by my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: only love can believe the Resurrection.

In this passage we can find the foreshadowing of Pascal’s true twentieth-century peer, the famous recluse of Cambridge.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches in the Religious Studies Program at New York University