Marjorie Perloff’s ‘Ironic’ Wittgenstein

God and religion are controversial topics nowadays as secular atheists decry the evils of a “God delusion” and Christian evangelists crusade against Darwin and scientific cosmology in the public schools.  It’s not often that public intellectuals wade into such dangerous waters to espouse religious beliefs, yet Ludwig Wittgenstein did just that when he returned to Cambridge in 1929.  Not only did the famous logician have religious inclinations, he also took Christian rites seriously and on more than one occasion nearly became a monk. Among various sources, he studied the Bible, Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospels in Brief, and the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  These facts may seem surprising to us, if not ironic, since Wittgenstein’s reputation and “true religion” was based on his contributions to mathematical logic and linguistic analysis.   

In a new book entitled The Edge of Irony, Marjorie Perloff addresses Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs.  About the influence of religion on Wittgenstein, Perloff quotes his sister Hermine, who said, “What he most wanted …was to turn into a different person.”  In other words, Wittgenstein believed that Christianity required him to change and adopt another ‘form of life.’  In keeping with the book’s theme, Perloff correctly identifies numerous ironies about Wittgenstein’s biography:  

(i) He was the youngest child of an aristocratic Viennese family but rejected his family’s wealth and social status; (ii)  He was Jewish but clearly rejected his heritage; (iii) He interpreted Judaism as a ‘race’ or ethnicity and not as a religion with its own rites and practices; (iv) He was a “star” philosopher but considered himself to be an “outsider” among Cambridge elites;  (v) Since most of the Cambridge elites were nonreligious or atheists, his religious inclinations deepened his alienation; (vi) He concurrently accepted social alienation while rejecting the ‘community’ of organized religion (both Christianity and Judaism); (vii) Although he rejected Christianity, he defended the validity of its beliefs, rites, and practices;  (viii)  In spite of defending Christian beliefs, rites, and practices, he was unconcerned with their “truth” and instead valued only religious “feelings”; (ix)  While he was unconcerned with the “truth” of Christian doctrines, he rebuked others for interpreting Christian doctrines as systematic “philosophy”; (x) the previous points (vi) – (ix) imply that he lacked humility which would have been inconsistent with Christian principles; (xi)  His religious beliefs would have been judged as incommensurate with his frequent contemplation of suicide and homosexuality; Lastly, (xii) His indifference to the “truth” of Christianity and his avowed irrationalism was incommensurate with his desire to “change his life” as a Christian.  

Known as a brilliant mathematically-minded analytic philosopher who stood in the company of Gottlob Frege, G.E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein is also frequently characterized as a self-absorbed “outsider,” a modern Manfred or Prometheus. Given the ironies of his life, one might think that Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs were less motivated by his desire for self-transformation than a recoil from Byronic self-contradiction.  

This impulse leads Perloff to claim that Wittgenstein’s approach to religion is more commensurate with a poet’s “framing” perspective on truth than a logician’s analytical objectivity.  This conclusion seems apropos since Wittgenstein once remarked that “Philosophy ought really to be written as a form of poetry.” In linking philosophical truth to poetry, Perloff quotes W.B. Yeats: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it,” and remarks that Wittgenstein “would have approved of this [Yeats’s] formulation.”  Indeed, Yeats’s statement resembles Ralph Waldo Emerson’s romantic declaration of individualism and self-reliance:  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart — that is genius.” The suggestion with Yeats and Emerson is that truth is not absolute; rather, it is relative to each individual’s perspective.  Next, Perloff refers to Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, the subject of which is knowledge and the truth conditions of simple statements, and implies that he was a truth-relativist and an irrationalist, because logical investigation has no bearing on “knowing” the truth.

In sum, Perloff claims that Wittgenstein was a relativist and an irrationalist about religious belief for the following reasons: (1) He believed that all religions were “true” and of “equal” value, and (2) He was more interested in the arousal of feelings over the “truth” of Christian beliefs.  As he confronted contingency, (“In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen”), Perloff implies that these facts led Wittgenstein to adopt a fatalistic religious faith.  This fatalism seems to be congruent with Wittgenstein’s view on the task of philosophy to describe facts and elucidate the ‘is’ of the world–its basic ‘form of life’–whereas the ‘ought’ of religious and ethical judgments are beyond its scope.  That is,  Wittgenstein distinguishes ‘sayable’ logical propositions from ‘unsayable’ ethical and religious beliefs, and Perloff believes that his attitude on religious beliefs is comparable to “Keats’s Negative Capability–a man’s being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any reaching after fact and reason.”  This detachment from reason and truth, then, begs the question about Wittgenstein’s commitment to “changing his life,” in which case we could ask: “Was he genuinely sincere?”  Perloff’s emphasis on the contradictory nature of irony implies that he wasn’t.   Now we have reason to consider Wittgenstein’s “ironies”…      


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