On Marjorie Perloff’s Life-Changing Wittgenstein

On July 19, 2012, Marjorie Perloff delivered a talk entitled “To Change Your Life: Wittgenstein on Christianity” at a conference organized by the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen, Norway.  Her paper abstract reads as follows:

In a 1946 notebook entry reproduced in Culture and Value, Wittgenstein writes, “Christianity says, I believe, that sound doctrines are all useless.  That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.”  As early as 1916, in the midst of World War I, Wittgenstein regarded this changing of one’s individual life as his crucial aim, even as he rejected theory, doctrine, or metalanguage of whatever kind.  Again, he remarked, “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened & will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.”  I shall argue here that this view of Christian belief as personal transformation, not uncharacteristic of the Vienna of Wittgenstein’s youth, signifies for an understanding of MODERNISM in the shadow of World War I.

Perloff begins her talk by mentioning that modernism really began with the emergence of Continental writers, such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for whom religious topics were relevant.  As she claims, European modernism begins in the 1870’s, not in the 1920’s with writers such as Eliot, Pound, Woolf, and Joyce.  This timeline allows us to conveniently identify Wittgenstein as emerging from a fin-de-siecle Viennese aristocratic culture rather than situate him among post-World War writers who challenged cultural authority and its institutions.

Wittgenstein did not claim to be religious but approached philosophical problems with a religious point of view.  What is a religious point of view?  How does one approach philosophical problems with a religious point of view?  Is such a statement related to Wittgenstein’s motto that philosophy can be written as a form of poetry?  What aspects of religion appealed to Wittgenstein?

Wittgenstein’s earliest comments on God appear in the Notebooks 1914-1916:

To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.

To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.

To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

And further:

How things stand, is God

God is, how things stand.

These cryptic comments don’t reveal much in terms of a religious perspective.  Also, they’re most notably not statements of personal faith— “To believe” is not “I believe.”  A religious point of view necessarily belongs to someone.  What is the role of the subject that holds a point of view, the “I” who believes?  On this topic, Wittgenstein says:

The subject is not part of the world, but a boundary of the world.

As the subject is not a part of the world but a presupposition of its existence, so good and evil which are predicates of the subject, are not properties of the world.

Here the nature of the subject is completely veiled.  According to Wittgenstein, the thinking subject is the product of superstition.  He concludes that it is mere illusion (where is it in the world?), whereas the willing subject exists as the center of the world, the “I,” the bearer of ethics.  The “I” is completely mysterious and not an object of thought.  That is, “The ‘I’ makes its appearance in philosophy through the world’s being ‘my’ world.

Although these statements are fairly cryptic, they can be instructive.  For Wittgenstein, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not properties in the world, and neither is ‘God.’  The word ‘God ’ corresponds not so much to a transcendent being in the cosmos, God the Creator, but is rather an abstract property attributed by the subject.  The Tractatus remarks, “God does not reveal himself in the world.”  As Wittgenstein says, “The way you use the word ‘God’ does not show whom you mean — but, rather, what you mean.”  That is, only the subject can define the limits and scope of God’s existence.  God exists within the scope of a person’s belief–his or her will.  As such, each subject has a different conception of his or her God.  The “I” wills the shape of God into being, just as the “I” could will her life into conformity with God’s commandments.

“To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.” Would Wittgenstein consider the converse to be true?  As he said, “To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.”  Clearly, as we know from the Tractatus, Wittgenstein did not think that the facts of the world limit human speculation, so did he hold the converse about believing in God?  Although he had personal crises and struggles, Wittgenstein believed that life is meaningful.

Does one require a system of beliefs, doctrines,  or canonical theses to accept the notion that life is meaningful?  Was Christ’s life modeled on such a system?  As Wittgenstein understood them, the Sermon on the Mount–and the Beatitudes–are less commandments or doctrines of systematic religion than moral precepts of a good life.  They describe conditions of life.  Also, Christ mentions symbols of salt and light.  Rather than the forbidden “Thou Shalt Not” commandments, Christ preached a new covenant, and fulfilled the old law.  He claimed that murder and adultery are poisonous characteristics of the heart.  He forbid swearing oaths or making insincere promises.  We ought to tread the second mile, pray often, forgive trespasses, and love our enemies.  If we only laid up our treasures in heaven, then we’d be less inclined to worry about life and its toils.  If we don’t judge others, then we could adopt the narrow way of salvation, and build our spiritual lives on the rock of Christ.  Here, we can recall Wittgenstein’s famous aphorisms: “To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth” and “If a person tells me he has been to the worst places I have no reason to judge him; but if he tells me it was his superior wisdom that enabled him to go there, then I know he is a fraud.”

How does one NOT be a fraud?  This would seem to be the ten-million dollar question–one that haunted Wittgenstein most of his life.  What does it mean to be a philosopher? What does it mean to live a good life?  How can one practice philosophy without being a complete fraud?  These questions were especially relevant to him because he was an exile who had little formal training in philosophy.

For Wittgenstein, Christianity is not so much a system of doctrines or beliefs, but rather it provides one with a path to live meaningfully.   Christ’s life is based on moral practices, whereby he expounds parables and allegories that offer moral lessons.  To be Christian means to be Christ-like, and this requires self-sacrifice, withdrawal from material pursuits, daily conversion, and the pursuit of moral redemption.  Accordingly, Wittgenstein’s Christ is more like a passive Henry David Thoreau-type figure seeking simplicity in ‘Where I Lived, What I Lived For,’ rather than a polemical Emerson.  For Wittgenstein, Christianity doesn’t merely require one’s belief it pertinently requires faithful practice and a commitment to a moral life.  The lived life matters more than living principles.

The time-honored issue of the good life has been significantly addressed by numerous philosophers who Wittgenstein was not entirely familiar with, such as Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Greek and Roman Stoics.  He would have rejected meta-theoretical ethical systems in preference to coherent, holistic practical guidelines that serve as signposts for a meaningful life.   In this way, Wittgenstein believed that the philosophical problem of the good life can be addressed with a religious point of view.   He said, “To pray is to think about the meaning of life.”  For him, prayer involves contemplation, meditation, and introspective soul-searching.  In this way, Wittgenstein was closer to Aristotle than to Plato.  For Aristotle, the happy man is virtuous and sustains conditions that contribute to his overall well-being: financial security, education, a stable marriage.  Wittgenstein seems to recognize this when he says:   “The world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy” and “The world of the happy is a happy world.”  As tautologous as these statements are, we can infer from them that happiness is a worthy goal, yet often presents us with the most perplexing  challenges.  Significantly, Wittgenstein prompts readers to contemplate the DIFFERENCE between the happy and unhappy.

The issues of happiness and the good life are relevant to both philosophers and Christians, but Wittgenstein didn’t significantly differentiate between two types of responses.  In addition to a concern for the good life, the ideal philosopher and the good Christian share similar attributes, such as the pursuit of truth and wisdom, the necessity of self-sacrifice, the disavowal of the worldly, and the lifestyle of an ascetic.  Both adhere to versions of stoicism that can be described as agnostic and secular or theistic and ecumenical.  The difference between the versions hinge on cultural and contextual practices.  The latter are crucial whereas systematic beliefs matter less and are relative to each group.

Although Wittgenstein deeply sympathized with Christian practices and the aesthetics of its rituals, according to Perloff, he could hardly be labeled a devout Christian fellow-traveler.  He admired Augustine, Tolstoy, and Kierkegaard, but found it nearly impossible to follow suit with them.  He studied Saint Paul’s Hellenic stoicism but took issue with the Epistles, especially the notion of election by grace.

Despite his lifestyle preferences, Perloff claims that Wittgenstein could not sustain Kierkegaard’s ‘faith as passion,’ because of his intellectual and cultural arrogance.  As a case in point, Perloff points to Wittgenstein’s conversations with his student Maurice Drury, who wanted to become an Anglican priest.  Wittgenstein advised Drury against becoming an Anglican priest because the latter was too intelligent and could not possibly neglect his intellectual aspirations.  One wonders whether Wittgenstein considered a career in theology as being intellectually unsatisfactory or sub par.  His worry was that Drury couldn’t possibly deliver sermons without also offering a philosophical interpretation of Christianity, which presumably would amount to a logical defense of it.  Wittgenstein claimed that the latter would be in bad taste because “making Christianity a philosophical system” is rather disgusting.  For Perloff, this proves Wittgenstein’s arrogance that is inconsistent with Christian humility.

Indeed, Drury presented a problem for Wittgenstein.  He was a very good philosophy student, but he was not a genius.  Philosophers think this way.  “Is this student genuinely smart or a genius?  Is he truly talented in logic?  If not, then is he a fraud?”  These questions also personally bothered him:  “Am I a talented philosopher? Can I make a genuine contribution in philosophy?”

Drury held out for a non-academic career and Wittgenstein championed his decision.  In some ways, Wittgenstein believed that academic philosophy was not altogether honest– at least the kind of philosophy he witnessed at Cambridge.  As Wittgenstein understood the nature of philosophy it  requires certain practices, a certain lifestyle, and requires the practitioner to settle on methods or strategies of attacking problems.  Philosophy requires certain virtues, and yes, there are cardinal sins or vices, such as obfuscation and dogmatism.

Philosophy–not so much Christianity–required Wittgenstein to change his life.  In fact, he changed from studying aeronautical engineering to logic, which was a major event in his life.  His pursuit of logic took him to Frege and Russell–the most reputed logicians of his day.  Wittgenstein believed that philosophy and the study of logic demands daily contemplation and even perhaps conversion; it can provide a kind of well-being or eudaimonia that Aristotle said sustained contemplation brings.  Logic can solve problems and eradicate confusions and paradoxes.  In addition to self-examination, philosophy is one of a few disciplines that calls itself into question: “What does philosophy mean?  What does it mean to be a philosopher?”  Perhaps ironically, the question has the same logical structure as “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

Wittgenstein’s queries into religion also coincided with personal crises whereby he was obsessed with deciding the nature and scope of philosophy.  In the end,  Wittgenstein understood philosophy in terms of religious commitment, and he often copped out of the breach by becoming more isolated and withdrawn from society.  But such attempts never quite panned out for him because he always returned to philosophical questions, not school teaching, the church, or becoming a gardening monk.

This is a point that a few philosophers miss.  Did Wittgenstein have a religious point of view?  Indeed, his religion was philosophy.  If we want to call this perspective Christianity, then so be it, but his version of Christianity begins with logical principles, not with the Gospels, Tolstoy, or Kierkegaard.

Is philosophy all-embracing and catholic?  No.  Not everyone can be (or wants to be) a philosopher, but nearly everyone feels the turmoil of philosophical questions on an individual basis.  This is why Wittgenstein could not belong to any specific religious community.  The questions are personal and subjective.  You’re on your own, but you can find wisdom in parables or find guides as Dante-the-pilgrim had a guide.  For Wittgenstein, logic provided a guide to the intelligible.

For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems convey religious awe.  The most challenging issues must be viewed ‘sub species aeternis,’ requiring what Tom Nagel calls a “backward step” or a “view from nowhere.”  If anything,   philosophical problems cause sleepless nights and one must be prepared for the sacrifices of tossing and turning.

Perhaps Christianity was not a special case for him.  Is there a distinction between the logic-minded philosopher and a disciple of Christ?  Both yield their lives to practices involving rites and rituals.  Wittgenstein lost sleep over whether he honestly practiced philosophy.  His frequent disgust with other philosophers (Moore, Russell, etc) show plenty of contrast and evidence that this was true.  If a man is a bad philosopher, then he could not be a good Christian.  Russell was out of running for both.  On the other hand, a good Christian could be something else other than a philosopher.

In Drury’s case, Wittgenstein worried about such issues.  Could Drury be a mediocre philosopher and a good Anglican priest?  Could he juggle both philosophy and theology?  Wittgenstein recommended that Drury avoid the Anglican priesthood because it would have been philosophically dishonest.  There are better ways to be a good Christian, which don’t require logically justifying the ways of God to humankind.

Wittgenstein discouraged several students who had career interests in academic philosophy.  In this way, he opposed discipleship and rising stars.  Most importantly, who is willing to make such sacrifices? Can one who climbs the ladder toss it away? Or can one who unlocks a safe discard the coded key?  What happens when the philosopher unbottles the fly?

For budding philosophers, the choice is between TEACHING or PRACTICING philosophy, and few can do both.  Such a choice amounts to the difference between walking the walk or talking about it.  The talking requires talent, which often reminds us when to be silent.

Similar to Kant, Wittgenstein considered the problem of philosophy (and the problem of Christianity) to be limiting its scope.  In a way, the philosopher needs to be a quiet mechanic who solves problems.  The problem of life is solving problems in language and logic.  This perspective is often labeled as Wittgenstein’s quietism.  A couple of online sources nicely address the topic.

As Perloff points out, Wittgenstein claimed that Christianity cannot be understood as a system of doctrines or theories; it’s an institution based on practices, thus we cannot read canonical texts as aphorisms or pick and choose what we like.  This view dove-tails with Wittgenstein’s quietism: the philosopher undertakes a therapeutic procedure to solve confusion in linguistic and conceptual frameworks. Rather than assert doctrines or theses, the quietist demonstrates the scope of nonsense or misguided reasoning that are the source of problems, returning us to a state of intellectual quietude.  In this way, life can be changed.  We may no longer endure sleepless nights, and we are allowed to pass over in silence the tremors of theoretical speculation.


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