on 15 July 2011
THEOLOGY AFTER WITTGENSTEIN, BY FERGUS KERR
[(11th Dec. 2011: Updating note.) Near the end of this review I refer to Anthony Kenny's book Philosophy in the Modern World. I have now had published on amazon UK and USA a review of Kenny's book which gives at some length my views on Wittgenstein and the retreat of 20th century philosophy as a whole into mere linguistic analysis: Bene cucurristis sed extra viam.]
I cannot be brief, because Kerr's book really calls for very extensive comment.
Kerr's book fails. Its title implies, and Kerr explicitly claims, that Wittgenstein has inaugurated a new era in the study of theology. I reject this. The very first words of his book (Preface, p.vii) are: "The purpose of this book is to show students of theology that they have much more to gain from reading Wittgenstein's later writings than is commonly supposed, and, secondly, that they are in a good position to understand them." Wittgenstein "might clear the way for another look at the Christian religion" (p. 52).
I give a 1-star rating to the book because, although I suppose that Kerr gives an accurate evaluation (is that possible?) of Wittgenstein's thought, Kerr does not see the significance of, or even mention, a crippling lacuna at the heart of Wittgenstein's `theology'. In Kerr's book, we get something on Frazer's Golden Bough, but no index references to or treatment of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. This recalls the appalling section in The God Delusion where Dawkins compares the rise of Christianity to the emergence of the `cargo cults' in Polynesia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Though Kerr invites us to think especially of Wittgenstein's concern with religion, much of his book deals with strictly philosophical preambles to this question, and in fact reflects the de facto abandonment of much of the traditional subject-matter of philosophy in recent centuries. Previously it was seen as the study of the ultimate realties about the world, and man - his origins and his nature and his destiny, by the light of reason; now, its shrunken remains deal mostly with logic and language. Curiously, again, Kerr's index does not list `language' or `language-games', though these topics come in everywhere.
I must say something about Wittgenstein's religion, the supposed key to the value of his views on the subject.
Kerr says (preface, p. vii): "For a modern philosopher, Wittgenstein wrote a great deal about religion ... In chapter 7, however, I identify some of the overtly theological topics in his later writings. Finally, in chapter 8, I sketch a few theological questions that may look rather different in the light of understanding Wittgenstein".
Kerr says again: "As von Wright says, the TRACTATUS fits into a tradition in European philosophy, running from Russell and Frege back to Leibniz and beyond, while Wittgenstein's later writings have a `spirit ... unlike anything I know in Western thought and in many ways opposed to aims and methods in traditional philosophy'. What he is suggesting, I think, is that, in Wittgenstein's later work, there is a radical questioning of the whole way of thinking about the self, and hence of others, of the world and of the divine, which has captivated Western Christian culture for a long time." I comment on this: Kerr fails here, as elsewhere, to see that for the past two or three centuries `Western Christian culture' has not existed in the field of philosophy and religion: Western culture has been a post- and non- and anti-Christian culture.
Kerr repeatedly discusses the content and the breadth and the depth of Wittgenstein's religious views and his understanding of religion, and specifically of Christianity and Catholicism. But he is forced to say: "It may never be possible to settle what Wittgenstein meant when he spoke of the religious point of view from which he regarded the problems that he discussed so persistently and imaginatively in the later writings. A non-metaphysical understanding of the place of the self in nature and history would certainly encourage resistance to the antipathy to the body which is so characteristic of one ancient and powerful religious tradition; and renouncing a certain nostalgia for spiritual purity might clear the way for another look at the Christian religion" (p. 52).
I reject this judgment of Kerr's, that Wittgenstein has opened the way to `another look at the Christian religion'.
On p. 33, Kerr quotes Wittgenstein: "I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view" (Drury recollection of statement by Wittgenstein). Kerr comments: "(To judge by the memoirs that have appeared, Wittgenstein was not a man whom one could easily ask to explain his more gnomic utterances.) In some sense, then, every problem traversed in the course of his writing was envisaged from a religious point of view - WHATEVER WE ARE TO MAKE OF THAT ASTONISHING CLAIM" [my emphasis].
On p. 32: "Norman Malcolm ... felt confident enough about the matter [of Wittgenstein's religion] to deny that Wittgenstein was a religious man. Georg von Wright spoke somewhat more cautiously: `I do not know whether he can be said to have been `religious' in any but a trivial sense of the word. Certainly he did not have a Christian faith. But neither was his view of life un-Christian, pagan, as was Goethe's. G.E.M. Anscombe, more bluntly, once declared that nobody understood W's views on religion."
On p. 36: "While one cannot dispute Georg von Wright's judgment that he did not have a Christian faith, many passages in CULTURE AND VALUE disclose a sympathetic and penetrating understanding of the matter that few Christians, never mind professed non-believers, could match." This may be true, but it does not change the fact that Wittgenstein's own view of religion/Catholicism is gravely deficient and provides no basis for a re-evaluation of religion. Kerr is simply wrong here. My next paragraph largely repeats Kerr's lack of decisiveness on this issue.
On p. 192 Kerr says: "One wonders, too, about his [Wittgenstein's] knowledge of theology". The next page mentions that Von Wright says that Wittgenstein `certainly did not have a Christian faith', but Wittgenstein's sister later disagreed with this verdict. Kerr comments: "At all events, it is one thing to have the Christian faith in some degree, it is another to be familiar with the kind of thing that Christians believe."
On p. 194 Kerr points out that there was a strong `modernist' tendency in Wittgenstein. "Again, when he remarked that he `could well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions', he could be understood as envisaging something remarkably like the non-dogmatic Christianity which the Modernists wanted." This Modernist attitude is not the key to a `new look' at Christianity. It is the destruction of Christianity. See, below, my quotation from chapter 28 of St Matthew's Gospel: Jesus has all authority, for all nations, all his teaching, all days.
On p. 153, Wittgenstein (1930, to Drury): "It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic. If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him." Kerr immediately comments: "Leaving aside whether this dogma (of the First Vatican council, 1869-70) ever meant that the deity's existence could be proved by simply anyone, irrespective of circumstances, moral considerations, etc., it is also contestable that it is `another being like myself' whose existence is at issue - though that is how people generally view the matter, whether or not they think they can do the trick." Kerr himself refers here to a journal article by Lubor Velecky, `Flew on Aquinas.' May I refer to the (2009) book by Antony Flew himself, `There is a God - How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind', especially pp. 74-77, and my `amazon' review of it dated 1 March 2009. Anthony Kenny also seems to trace the beginnings of the loss of his faith in Catholicism to his inability to swear, as required of a Roman Catholic priest, to an anti-Modernist oath, decreed by Pope St Pius X in 1910, containing this just-above-mentioned dogma of Vatican I (`What I Believe', p. 5).
I would like to raise the question here, as to whether an acceptance of the historical authenticity of the New Testament records, and the compelling witness to the authenticity of the claims made by and for Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, as Saviour and God-made-man, sealed by his resurrection, provide a `proof from reason' for Jesus' teaching that God exists. Kerr has nothing at all on the New Testament. Yet there is currently a huge discussion of this among biblical scholars and historians generally.
Why should we bother with Wittgenstein? He is very frequently not clear, either to himself or to his commentators. His later work ridicules his earlier work which was supposed to have been the definitive last word on all matters philosophical. Kerr says (pp. 47,8): "The texts known as the BLUE BOOK and the BROWN BOOK, dictated in English in 1933-35, display the later style [of Wittgenstein's doing philosophy] for the first time. Wittgenstein thinks aloud, argues with himself, changes the subject apparently at random, suppresses connections, and so on. He had only to cut up these texts, mix the fragments even more disconcertingly, interject more jokes, question marks and exclamations, and finally rearrange everything as cunningly as possible to slow the reader down, or to get him to give up in despair, and he had invented the method of the INVESTIGATIONS and the later writings in general."
I will end for now by quoting some passages from the New Testament. (I slightly modify traditional translations.) What would Wittgenstein's logic and `language' skills (and involvement with `religion') make of the following texts: are they authentic first-century texts, from a specific historical and religious milieu (allowing for uncertainty about their exact date, and the identity of their authors); have they any meaning; are they true? If they are true, how must we live by them? For me, all this is what religion is all about. Where is Wittgenstein in all this? Certainly nothing in Kerr's book gives any idea that Wittgenstein wrestled with THE CONTENT of any such language statements.
THE NEW TESTAMENT JESUS: NOT THE GOLDEN BOUGH'S PRIEST-KING
Matthew 28. 18-20: "There is given to me [i.e. God has given to me - the `divine passive'] ALL authority in heaven and on earth. Going therefore make disciples of ALL nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe ALL THINGS whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you ALL days even to the end of the age" [The Greek text has `ALL' in the four places highlighted in my translation.]
John 1.1,14: "In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him. ... And the Word became flesh, and `shekinahed' among us, and we saw his glory, ... full of grace and truth" [exactly as described in Yahweh's appearance, full of grace and truth, to Moses on Sinai, and his dwelling, 'shekinah', there among his people, in the book of Exodus.]
John 20.31: "These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe [or: continue believing] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name."
Philippians 2.9-11: "Therefore also God has super-exalted him, and has given him the name which is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of heavenly beings, and earthly beings, and beings under the earth, and every tongue should profess that Jesus Christ is Yahweh [see Isaiah 45.18-23, especially verse 23 explicitly] to the glory of God the Father".
Hebrews 1.1-4 [here I give the translation of the New Revised Standard Version]: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being [apaugasma tes doxes kai charakter tes hypostaseos autou], and he sustains all things by his powerful word [to remati tes dynameos autou]. When he had made purification for sins [katharismon ton hamartion], he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high [tes megalosunes en hypselois], having become so much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs".
Conclusion: The apotheosis of Wittgenstein is a sad commentary on the emptiness of philosophy in the 20th century. Having read (but not yet written a review of) Anthony Kenny's Philosophy in the Modern World (Vol. 4 in his A New History of Western Philosophy), I will anticipate here what I would put as a title for the post-Christian philosophy described in Kenny's final volume, where philosophy has abandoned concern with ultimate reality, and concentrates on linguistic games: "Bene cucurristis, sed extra viam".
Much of Wittgenstein's musings on how we interpret the facial expressions of others, or if we fully think out an idea before we express it, or how much we can extrapolate our feelings and ideas and perceptions of colour, taste, etc. to others, seem jejune in the extreme.
On the soul, and its survival after death, and on the mixture of the human and the divine in man - the teachings of Jesus, and the whole New Testament (and traditional Catholic theology) deal so sensibly. Kerr's continual insistence is that Wittgenstein disagrees with Cartesian idealism, and that this anti-Cartesian view is what is needed to refresh Christianity. Whyever should Wittgenstein be supposed to have shed new light on all these topics?
Kerr's book does not establish the case for Wittgenstein's greatness.