“And at the end of all our explorations we shall arrive at the beginning and know the place for the first time”
“Let us start at the end of the Philosophical journey, ladies, and gentlemen, with what some doomsday prophets would say is the end of Philosophy: the Philosophy of Wittgenstein. Some have called him the greatest of the philosophers of this century and he might have been prepared to wear this particular crown of thorns in his earlier work where his logical atomism relegated all value, all aesthetic, ethical and religious value from the world constituted of facts. In his later work, however, he has been humbled and offers us some pictures of a part of a landscape that he admits he will not be able to form into a complete philosophy. So let us begin. At the beginning of the Second World War, just after the death of Freud, Wittgenstein has this to say:
“Why is the soul moved by idle thoughts—since they are after all idle? Well, it is just moved by them (How can the wind move a tree, since it is after all just wind? Well, it does move it and do not forget it.)”
This is the philosophical idea of psychogenesis that Freud believed played a role in mental illness. Freud was one of the few Psychologists Wittgenstein would study, perhaps because both believed that surrounding the heart of our understanding was madness, the cure for which was therapy. And what greater madness can there be than war, ladies and gentlemen. War, for both these philosophers was the product of idle thoughts not engaging with the everyday life-world of the context of involvements, and the everyday understanding of language. War, is the product of a childish resistance that refuses to engage with others. Wittgenstein believed that no distress can be greater than that which a single person can suffer:
“one human being can be in infinite distress and require infinite help”.
This is why he was inclined toward the religious. Religion promised the possibility of infinite help if one kept ones part of the bargain and believed and opened ones heart to God in one’s distress and remorse. This may seem to some to be the result of a childish form of love but the child does approach others with an open heart, something that adults seem not to be capable of. Perhaps adults cut themselves off from each other because opening our hearts and minds will not reveal very attractive content. Perhaps we suffer from a form of blindness and cannot see another’s soul, perhaps there is no means of talking about the relation another person has to his soul. It is not easy to see what relation each soul has to its life as a whole or to its own death. When someone dies we do not see the anxiety, depression and remorse the individual felt characterized their life: we are conciliatory and round off the edges of his life in sympathy because we understand how difficult it is to live and understand ourselves. We need to understand that our motives are not always transparent and that sometimes we may believe that our motives for doing X are virtuous but after internal exploration we may well discover they are born from cowardice or indifference or greed. We need this childish open-hearted honesty if our narcissism is to be destroyed, for only then can religion, like the sea, seep into every nook and cranny of our personality. Wittgenstein did not subscribe to the mental illness model subscribed to by Freud and would have preferred a more neutral personality-change model. And no model can have more detrimental effects on an education system run by the state, than that of the mental disease model. The state has historically handled mental illness poorly. First by incarcerating thousands of women in state institutions, with no treatment at all in the late eighteen hundreds, and then by placing its faith in science and incarcerating patients indefinitely in institutions, administering medicines designed to remove the more uncomfortable symptoms such as hallucinations: and finally in desperation when that clearly failed, releasing schizophrenic patients to a fate of homelessness on the streets. But what model does run our current state-run educational systems? All the above measures seemed to aim at reducing suffering. This is, according to Wittgenstein, the aim of education too, which is, to reduce the capacity for suffering. Here is something he wrote in 1948:
“Nowadays a school counts as good if the children have a Good time. And formerly that was not the yardstick. And parents would like children to become the way they themselves are (only more so) and yet they give them an education which is quite different from their own suffering really is out of date.”
You may recognize the medical “Hippocratic” model of reducing suffering at the root of all state run activity. In this regard Wittgenstein points to the industry of Bach, one of my favorite composers, and points out the “logical” or “grammatical” relation of industry to humility and suffering. Bach could really listen to music with the ear of an exploring sufferer and produce it for the hands of suffering explorers too. I personally cannot hear what I hear in Bach in very much of our popular music. Bach in his music is like the tightrope walker who is so high up in our cultural heaven supported by almost nothing but a little thread which seems impossible to walk upon: and yet he is up there moving across the space of our cultural sky. It’s almost as if he has wings. This is why Bach’s music is religious music, ladies and gentlemen. When one reads the Bible one gets the same feeling from the way the language is used. It is used like music, coming from writers who suffer infinitely, moving across the heavens with the greatest of ease, as graceful and as purposeful as an angel: the words of Solomon, the words of Ecclesiastes may sometimes land to the sound of softly flapping angels wings, but mostly these words are like the swifts flying on their secret missions.
And in 1949, a few years before his death, Wittgenstein points out that If Christianity is the truth about being in the world then all the philosophy about it is false. One year prior to his death he also remarks that if Gods essence is said to guarantee his existence, then this indicates that God’s existence, the philosophical question par excellence, is not the issue. What then is the issue? Suffering and how to live heroically yet humbly in the shadow of religion is Wittgenstein’s tentative answer. He claims that life led in the right way, with the right upbringing and experiences of suffering, can lead you to a belief in God or force the concept of God upon your thinking.
I wish now to speak less anecdotally and more theoretically about Wittgenstein’s view of religious language and the religious form of life. I will draw here upon the ideas of our colleague, Donald Hudson’s work.
Learning a language, in general, is learning to play a language –game in which action and language occur in intimate relations with each other. We need to be trained in order to understand the rules and the point of the game in much the same way as we are trained to play chess. Language games have two important logical characteristics: firstly they are part of an activity or form of life, and, secondly, what is done in the language –game always rests on a tacit presupposition On the first point Hudson engages in a thought experiment and asks us to imagine a lion-like form of life in which the lions talk as human beings yet carry on behaving exactly as lions. Imagine, Hudson, asks, a lion exclaiming “Goodness! It is already 3 o clock” but continuing to lounge about and sleep as lions are liable to do. These words would be a prelude to urgent action for a human being but, Hudson argues, we would not understand these lazy lions even if they could speak. The words, isolated from action as they are here, lose all their meaning. Hudson then gives an example of a tacit presupposition in the language game of science in its talk about the moon. The moon is spoken of as a continuous existent and yet our experiences of it are discontinuous: it is tacitly presupposed that our discontinuous experiences of the moon are sufficiently valid grounds for claiming the continuous existence of the moon. Now in discussing religious beliefs, we should not expect the religious man to reason about his beliefs in the same way as the scientist does about his theories. A man believing in the Last Judgment may act every day against the background of the fear or promise of such an event. Is this not then reasonable? Does not the practical belief seem to be stronger than any hypothetical scientific belief? The scientist has his world-view and expects that every event has an explanatory cause in a systematically uniform world in which moons continuously exist. But surely, we would want to claim, a worldview such as the Christian one cannot amount to explaining merely what individuals do in their daily lives. It surely must be able to understand and explain global phenomena such as mass starvation. No Christian would accept the explanation that mass starvation occurs because God does not care whether his creation starves or has food. Now perhaps not every Christian would be able to immediately understand or be able to explain this phenomenon, but we would certainly expect understanding and an explanation of the phenomenon of world starvation from a Christian theologian. The type of explanation we would expect would be something along the following lines: mass starvation is due to human selfishness which is a consequence of God creating man with reason, a free will and a sense of what is good, all of which can then be used to persuade men or let them persuade each other to do something about the phenomenon in question.
Finally, on this issue of the existence and essence of God, let me turn briefly to Kant and his work “Religion within the bounds of mere Reason. According to this work:
“The nature and intrinsic limits of thought and human knowledge preclude any demonstration of the existence of God.”
“non-existence cannot be demonstrated either.”
It is for the above reasons, ladies and gentlemen that knowledge about, or of God, is not possible and that we are left with faith guided by moral, practical reason. This faith assists us in moving toward what Kant called the summum bonum or the highest possible good in the world. This involves striving for the perfection of our own character and experiencing happiness in direct proportion to the goodness of that character.
It is important to point out that Kant is not here merely making epistemological points but is also hinting at a metaphysical framework. Mathematics and Science are only on a sound theoretical footing as long as they do not claim to be true of Being or reality as such: as long, as they claim to be discovering the truth of what appears to the observer possessing theoretical knowledge. Kant’s argument, is that all our experience is structured by basic forms of sensibility and/or categories of thought. Neither space nor time characterize reality as it is in itself, but characterize the receptivity of the sensible faculty of our minds. Furthermore, objects as they are experienced must, in accordance with scientific assumptions, be subject to causal determinism, i.e. no one can experience any change in the world which does not have a physical observable cause. That is how the world must be organized for the scientific observer. If determinism is a universal principle, however, we are immediately going to have a problem characterizing the free will of moral agents, which are not causally determined entities. The resultant paradox of both being in accordance with and not being in accordance with the theoretical demand of determinism is resolved by Kant’s distinction between the self as a phenomenon obeying deterministic causal laws and the self as a noumenon which is free from determinism. Similarly we do not experience God as a phenomenon to be experienced but only as a noumenon free from determinism. God has not been caused by anything, he is his own cause: he is the explanation of himself. The thematic question of religious belief is “What can I hope for?” thereby situating religious phenomena squarely in the field of aspiration, in the field of what ought to be striven for: a good will , a hope for salvation. This is not necessarily the same thing as the theological doctrine of Original Sin which is a highly theoretical claim about the human condition and certainly not compatible with the idea of a free agent with individual responsibility striving for the good, striving for what it ought to do. But what then of what Kant calls radical evil. How can he account for this phenomenon? Firstly he tends to speculate about this matter in terms of the will rather than behavior. An action with good intentions might conceivably have what is regarded as evil empirical consequences, but unqualified goodness is demanded of the will which is capable of noumenal deeds: capable namely of adopting principles of action which are in accordance with the categorical imperative. Such noumenal deeds can be corrupted and a deviant will is thus possible. It is important not to underestimate this possible corruption. We speak of people as good even if we experience deviations from the good, as illustrated above by our speeches at their funerals. The dead person may have felt acutely remorseful and guilty at the memory of their deviation from the good, he may indeed have felt his life as a miserable failure because of a few deviations and yet we, with our knowledge of the human condition round off these embarrassing edges and call the dead person a good man. What we are engaging upon here is nothing less than what Kant would have called “ a deduction” of the idea of a justification of a human being who is guilty of deviations but has through hard work with his character transformed his will into one that would please God. This hard work is enormously demanding and leads to a complete transformation or rebirth of the person. Kant says the following:
“The distance between the goodness which we ought to effect in ourselves and the evil from which we start is infinite, and, so far as the deed is concerned—i.e. the conformity of the conduct of one’s life to the holiness of the law—it is not attainable in any time”
For Kant it is progress along this infinite continuum which counts as good. There is no alternative for Kant given the fact that deeds in the noumenal sphere of our existence escape cognition. But strictly speaking the progress of the will, no matter how far it has come, in its infinite work toward the absolute good, may yet regard its work as a failure. The role of God enters here in the form of his good will and grace: if man has done everything he can, then God imputes righteousness gracefully to us. But what about our empirical societies, is there hope that they too will progress infinitely toward the ideal of a kingdom of ends? Indeed, is not the empirical state of affairs the following: that the growing awareness of cross-cultural and ecological awareness has left us with a lack of conviction in the supposed work for progress: that the individual in such circumstances will feel that there is no hope of producing good consequences in these circumstances. Kant would respond in two ways to this state of affairs: firstly he would insist that moral action is not instrumental, is not a means to an end but rather it is an end in itself: secondly, and relatedly, he would insist that this is not a knowledge issue to be calculated in terms of means and ends but rather a matter of faith that one’s action will constitute progress toward the good.
Finally Kant discusses whether the above very complex metaphysical reasoning could serve as the foundation of an actual ethical community of the form we find in a church. Kant realizes that some form of public experiential condition is needed. There is needed, he argues, some form of historical faith in authority or leadership grounded in actual historical conditions laid down, for example, in the Bible, ecclesiastical literature and historical practices. The historical account of the journey of the Jews and the life of Jesus Christ are obviously important in this respect.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, the world explored is the world suffered actively in the mode of an active faith, reasoning about the world as a whole. There is of course a melancholic air to both exploration and suffering which will always be the case until this untethered buoy with its tolling bell finds a safe harbor and safe shelter: the finite promised waters in a sublime infinite sea of suffering.”