Tag Archives: Wittgenstein

God, language, and reality – some questions explored (none answered!)

Since the publication of my book, Telling the Truth about God, some readers have been in touch with me to share their thoughts. One, Gordon Steel, emailed me some interesting questions. These are issues not fully covered in the book, and although they are explored a little in my PhD thesis that’s not very accessible – so with Gordon’s permission I’m taking the opportunity here to consider them in more detail and plainer language.


There is much in your book that I have appreciated… What I wanted to raise with you is what seems to me to be something missing.

My whole attitude to religious thought was transformed years ago by the realisation that all that we say about God or religion is human – following Don Cupitt.

It seems to me that this notion transforms discussion about God. It changes it from ‘What is God like?’ to ‘What is my (or your) image of God?’

The humanness of religious language seems patently obvious to me.

So I am surprised not to have found reference to this in your book (or have I missed it?)

At this stage I replied, briefly, and Gordon looked at the abstract of my thesis and came back with some more questions:

Language arises from human experience. Is this experience internal to us, or is it experience of an external reality?

‘Meaning as use in context’ – I have not read Wittgenstein but does this see meaning as ‘how we use it’ rather than in reference to some ‘reality’?

‘…ways in which religious language is used rather than truth-value…’   Does this mean that the value is in the language rather than the reality that some Friends might suppose it to have?


In short: I think that experience arises from the interaction of our awareness with reality, and language is a human creation which both reflects and shapes our experience.

In long:

Let’s start with language. Natural languages are communal creations, which we adjust when we need to (for example, inventing new words when we create new technology – like email – and when we recognise previously unnamed situations – like mansplaining). There are two things to note here. Firstly, language is social and no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it). Secondly, people and therefore our languages are constantly interacting with the world around us.

(Okay, sceptics, what we take to be the world around us – but if we turn out to be in the Matrix, my argument will still run because a Matrix-table is still experienced as a table by all the speakers who label it as a table, so I’m going to move on without considering this in detail. If you’re worried about this you can read about Putnam instead.)

On the balance of probability, I do think there’s a real world around us, and when I refer to that traditional object of philosophical contemplation, the table, I do think there’s some actual wood (well, mainly Formica) in front of me. I can see it, I can feel it, I can put my mug down on it – and more the point, when I have a visitor over it they can, too. The things which make it a table, though, are things determined by people. For one thing, by upbringing and habit I speak English, but I could, if less confidently, say bwrdd or โต๊ะ. For another, the category of ‘tables’ is a socially constructed one; the rather low coffee table I happen to be looking at could just as easily be a stool, while in other places in the house some strong storage boxes have been pressed into service as ‘tables’. It’s really an object, but it’s our communal agreement on the word ‘table’ which makes it into that rather than something else.

So far so good, at least as far as readily visible, tangible objects go. It’s fairly easy to see how we extend this to some other, less tangible but observable things – for example, money is socially created, and it has reality while both sides in the transaction are willing to accept the same currency and broadly speaking the same assumptions. The transaction itself makes the money real, enough to measure and put on a graph and ask questions like ‘is GDP falling or rising?’. For some other things, we have socially accepted ways of expressing them which are related to our experiences – Wittgenstein’s examples are often about pain, and the ways we learn to speak and channel a wordless howl of pain into descriptions and images. These aren’t always obvious uses of language: a stabbing pain is not the same as the pain of being stabbed. Nor are these directly comparable with other people (I can invite a visitor to view my table; I can’t invite a visitor to experience my pain). In one sense, pain is an internal experience, but I don’t think I want to say that it’s fully internal if that means that it is only a product of my mind – my body has a big role to play in the experience of pain, and often something which is not my body is involved too. (For example: I stub my toe on the aforementioned table. I consider my pain to be caused by the interaction of my body with another object, and the pain itself to be a real internal experience.)

This gives us ‘meaning as use in context’ – in our society, we have a way of using the word ‘table’ within the English language which enables us to talk about tables in a meaningful way, both generally (“they’re a table-making company”) and specifically (“I bought this table from the British Heart Foundation charity shop”). Context is most visible when it gives away the fact that there are also other potential meanings (“I put the data from the survey into a table so it’s easy to read”).

Where does that leave us with God? On this picture, language about God is always going to be human. Religious experiences – like pain, like love, like that feeling of satisfaction you get when you type a Tweet and it’s exactly on the character count – are internal experiences. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve interaction with external reality, however. Now, please don’t jump ahead here and take that to be an assertion of the reality of whatever you think God is (or think God isn’t and want to accuse me of thinking God is). All of those experiences involve interaction with a reality which is external to me, but very much internal to the world in which I live.

When I stub my toe on the table, the table is external to me but internal to the world. When I express love for my partner, both she and my expression of love (like buying a present or speaking out loud) are in the world, things of which I have direct experience but not internal to me. The feeling of satisfaction is all mine but Twitter is a feature of the physical, external world. It’s also the case that the language I have available shapes my understanding of the world – I can eat an apple without having the word ‘apple’, but knowing it adds nuance to my experience and helps me to communicate about it. (Other relevant examples: the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment’; the difference between walking in the woods alone and walking in the woods with an expert birdwatcher who can add a name to every flutter).

Within this understanding of language, I think there are (at least) three things you could coherently say about God:

  • the idea of God is a purely social construct, like money, which exists only for as long as someone is using it
  • religious experience tells us that talk about God is a way of expressing something that we feel, like saying ‘ow’ when in pain
  • God is something we interact with, perhaps more like someone else’s mind than a table but part of the world (and, being God, might also be beyond the world)

It’s possible that all of these are right – our idea of God, our talk about God, and actual God might be quite distinct. I think Don Cupitt would go with the first option. I think Wittgenstein probably never made up his mind (hence the difficulty later readers have had in working out what he really thought on this one). I think some excellent Wittgensteinian thinkers have hovered in a creative space between the first two – D. Z. Phillips, for example. I think this view of language tends to discourage putting too much weight on talk about transcendence and going beyond this world (or indeed all sorts of other metaphysical ideas, like mathematical realism): words in this area develop their communal meanings in ways which seem less connected to direct experience and more connected to social needs.

That said, people sometimes expect me to be worried about this stuff. For myself, I think any one of the possibilities above is enough to justify going forward with my own religious practices, of attending Quaker Meeting for Worship and so forth. I find it helpful to think these things through and be pointed back towards the Mystery, seeing that I don’t and can’t prove God but rather sense God experientially and within a faith community, which provides language and practices, which shape that experience.

That being so, “What is God?” is a question which is worth asking – one which can have many useful, interesting, temporary, attempted answers but where ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ might never add up to ‘the whole truth’. “What is my (or your) image of God?” is an equally good question, which acknowledges the impossibility of the first but opens up space for us to express our ideas, feelings, experiences, etc. I would add another question, which addresses issues touched on in this post: “Which sources has your image of God come from?”

W is for Wittgenstein

My academic alphabet would never be complete without a post directly about Wittgenstein, who has already featured a number of times. (You can view a full list of my posts tagged ‘Wittgenstein’ – they include posts on key terms such as grammar, language-games, and use.) Much has already been written about Wittgenstein, of course; for a readable but comprehensive biography, I recommend Ray Monk’s book, and for a more technical introduction online, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In this blog post, I am not going to try and tell Wittgenstein’s whole story or sum up his philosophy – the latter in particular may be impossible anyway. Instead, I want to pull out three facts about his life which I find relevant to understanding his philosophical method.

Doing other things as well

Wittgenstein was never just a philosopher. He did spend a good deal of time working on philosophy, but along the way he tried his hand at all sorts of other activities: engineering, architecture, military service, school teaching, lab work, reading detective novels, and photography, for example. He was not necessarily good at any of these (his school teaching career did not go well at all), but all might be seen as feeding, in one way or another, into his philosophical work. Even if they did not end up doing so, the potential was there. As a matter of practicality, of course, all philosophers need to do things other than philosophy, but the lesson I take from Wittgenstein is that these activities can feed into, rather than detract from, the life of thought, if we allow everything we do to interact with our philosophy.

Photographs of family resemblances

Wittgenstein was interested in ‘family resemblances’ as a philosophical concept – he uses it to describe the way we come to understand and use words which don’t have a single stable definition, but where we can recognise examples because they have some points in common with other examples in the category. Things like ‘games’ are family resemblance concepts, for example. This idea seems to be not just an abstract one, although it works at that level, but also related to photographs he took in which members of his family are overlaid in multiple exposures. This connection of the philosophical ‘picture’ to an actual picture both helps me to grasp the concept and helps to ground the idea in the way the world is.

Changing his mind

Relatively early in life, he thought that he had solved all the problems in philosophy, and walked away from it. Later, though, he changed his mind, rejected much of what he had written before (opinions vary on how much, ranging from ‘all of it was wrong’ to ‘it had one small but key flaw’), and began to build another way to approach philosophical problems. There are things in life about which we don’t, I think, change our minds because of philosophical arguments – if you feel the presence of God, you are unlikely to be convinced that there is no God by a syllogism – but there are also lots of cases where it’s appropriate to change our minds. I happen to think that Wittgenstein got much more of it right on his second attempt, but even so, I think the decision to declare that he needed to go back and try again was an admirable one.

U is for Use

In Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, the idea of use of very important: he says that for most of the ways in which we use the word “meaning”, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations section 43). How are we to understand this claim? His examples, both explicit and embedded in his method, suggest that when we are looking at a speciic word or phrase and asking ourselves “what does this mean?” we need to turn, not to a dictionary or a definition provided by a single person, but to the ways in which fluent speakers of the language actually use the term. This might include ourselves, and Wittgenstein sometimes invites us to think about the ways in which we ourselves would use a term. Because natural language is complex and multilayered, these patterns of use usually turn out to be complex and multilayered, and a single word can have a variety of uses – and, hence, meanings.

(For example, think about the word ‘mouse’. What are the ways in which you use this word? “I saw a mouse in the kitchen.” “Do you remember that red rollerball mouse that came with our first computr?” Sometimes it won’t be instantly clear whether we’re talking about a rodent or a digital input device, but it will almost always become clear if we take into account the whole context of what is being said. This points us back to the importance of context, discussed in a previous post.)

“Meaning is use” is, in a way, very clear, and some scholars are opposed to extending or explaining it too much. However, it doesn’t, unfortunately, fit in with a very common use of the word “meaning”, which often conjures a picture of something like a halo around a word or something above and behind it which gives force to it. To get over this, I often start non-academic discussions by asking people how they think a word gets its meaning (most actually arrive at a Wittgensteinian view without a lot of effort, talking about learning from others and community agreement – this saves a lot of time if we don’t need to debunk ideas about stating definitions first!). Meaning consists in regular and comunally agreed uses. Mistaken uses are possible, but can become part of the meaning if repeated; a mistaken use can eventually become accepted, at which point it is no longer mistaken (“10 items or less”).

I also extend the analysis of use beyond words and phrases to look at structures within language – lists are my big example, but we could also look at the use of nouns and verbs, or metaphors, in much the same way. The question here is always: how does this community use this structure? The community – the context within which the linguistic structure is being used – is always as important to this analysis as the use itself. Meaning is use, which is always within a context.

L is for Language-Games

‘Language-games’ is Wittgenstein’s much used, much abused, much debated term which tries to capture something about his view of how language works: as something rule-guided, something inherently social, and something particular to specific contexts and communities.

How big is a language-game?

Wittgenstein’s own list of examples, in section 23 of the Philosophical Investigations, tends towards the ‘small’ – each is, in itself, quite a minor use of language. For example, he suggests “Reporting an event”, “guessing riddles”, and “solving a problem in applied arithmetic” as examples of language-games in this list, which is designed to stress the variety of language-games. Notably, and relevant to my previous post on language, some of them are clearly ‘linguistic’ (“translating from one language into another”, for example) but others use mathematics or images, such as “presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams”.

Later writers have tended to think of larger language-games. In the field of religion, for example, there’s been a move from Wittgenstein’s list, which includes “praying” to regarding whole religions as language-games, speaking of the ‘Christian language-game’ or some such. I think this unhelpfully blurs the issue, and prefer to keep the term ‘language-game’ for smaller activities – praying, giving a sermon, writing a Quaker minute, and so forth – and use Lindbeck’s religion-as-language analogy to speak of whole religious traditions as languages. The natural language English encompasses, obviously, many thousands of possible language-games; the ‘language’ Christianity also includes a whole range of possible language-games. This helps to clarify that not every speaker of the language needs to play every language-game within it.

Are ‘games’ a good analogy for language uses?

In the introduction to this post, I listed some of the reasons why we might compare the use of language with the playing of a game. Language uses, like games, have rules. Language uses, like games, have unacceptable and impermissible moves. Language uses, like games, need players, people to engage in them. Games are passed on in particular cultures and societies, and can be taught to others; games don’t have to make sense to people who aren’t playing them (or even, sometimes, the people who are).

The chief objection to the term language-games, apart from those who think that language doesn’t have one of the properties listed above, is that ‘games’ is a trivialising term. In particular, when a religion is called a language-game, people often read this as trivialising: “oh, it’s just a game.” “Don’t say that, religion is serious.”

Firstly, this is more likely to happen when the ‘language-game’ concept has been applied to something larger than in the original use of it. Secondly, anyone who knows a committed sports fan or player, or a keen video-gamer, can tell that games are not automatically trivial or unserious: a whole life can be very seriously bound up in the playing of a specific game. Thirdly, although I am happy to use other terms as well, ‘language uses’, ‘language practices’, ‘language patterns’ and so forth do not capture the full range of implications of the term ‘game’.

Which games are language-games most like?

Depends which language-game! Wittgenstein used the examples of simple board games and chess, among others; some scholars seem to default to team sports, such as football and cricket; because of the emphasis in some parts of the Philosophical Investigations on the role of language-games in learning a language, it might be natural to think of children’s games like Ring-a-Roses and Tag, or maybe role-playing games like Cops and Robbers or Doctors and Nurses, as a most obvious comparisons. I tend to use different examples depending which aspect of a language-game I want to bring out. When the rules seem complex, chess or Monopoly seem like fair comparisons. When the focus is on needing a community with whom to play, group games like Stuck-in-the-mud or bowling might be good analogies. Sometimes I wonder if there aren’t language-games which are actually more like Mornington Crescent, in which the actual rules and the rules as discussed within the game are completely different!

K is for Kripke

Saul Kripke (1940-) is a philosopher, with a particular interest in logic. People who are interested in formal logic do not, mostly, overlap very much with people who are interested in Wittgenstein’s later work; the Philosophical Investigations sometimes seems almost calculated to annoy people who like things to be neat in the mathematical way. (This could be the case. Wittgenstein wasn’t a huge fan of traditional analytic philosophy, although he was good at maths and had a great interest in philosophy of mathematics.) However, among many other interesting lines of work, Kripke wrote a book about Wittgenstein’s anti-private-language argument, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.

It was actually through this book that Wittgenstein’s work first came to my attention. This book first came to my attention when a lecturer of mine used an example from it in one of my very first Elementary Logic lectures, which I was thoroughly enjoying. As far as I remember, the example was to illustrate a point of logic, and the book was only mentioned by way of a caution: remember, we were told, Kripke is wrong about everything else he says, especially about Wittgenstein.

Well, nothing makes me look up a book quicker than being told it’s all wrong, so naturally I hunted it out in the library. I don’t think I understood very much of it at the time – there are probably still parts I don’t fully appreciate. However, I didn’t see any particular reason to think that Kripke was wrong, and I thought the ideas he put forward were very interesting, especially those about rule-following. When I came to read Wittgenstein’s own work, a little later, I did come to agree that Kripke’s version of Wittgenstein is probably some distance – sometimes a long distance – from what, as far as we can tell, Wittgenstein himself had in mind. However, I do still think that some of Kripke’s key ideas are useful. Even his approach to Wittgenstein, which encourages a broad reading of the text rather than a narrow focus on one or two passages, is basically sound in method.

For me, the most striking part of Kripke’s argument is his ‘quus’ example, which poses the sceptical problem about rule-following in mathematics. In essence, this asks how we know that we are using the function ‘plus’ correctly. Can we tell whether we are really using ‘plus’, or its weird alternative, ‘quus’? There’s a clear explanation of this at the start of this paper, Kripke’s Skeptical Paradox [pdf].

I is for Irreplaceability

Are some words or phrases irreplaceable in our language, in that it is impossible to express the same sense – or convey the same picture of the world – without using that specific expression? Some Wittgensteinians have argued that it is (n.b. I’m going to talk about the idea and not the references today; broadly speaking, this stuff comes out of the student’s notes published as Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief, and is covered in a complex and technical literature in which I regard Cora Diamond as a slightly more readable guiding light).

What kind of thing might be irreplaceable in this way? Some examples might be religious uses of language which create very clear images of the way the world is: for example, if you’re describing a sensation experienced in prayer, you might be able to say, “It felt like God was watching over me”, and thereby capture something about the experience which is not captured by other, similar phrases. The picture created, of a God who is outside you and can watch, perhaps even has eyes, need not be regarded as ‘literal’ or even ‘true’ in order to be the most vivid and accurate representation of the way you felt in that moment. In fact, we know that language in such contexts isn’t taken in the same way that the same phrase would be in another setting; if someone else is said to be watching, the grammatically acceptable conversational responses are different.

One of the reasons that irreplaceability interests me as an idea is that it runs counter to another idea I hear quite frequently, namely, that everything can be ‘said in other words’ with just a bit of effort. Especially in the realm of spiritual experience, it is often argued that people are talking about the same thing but in different ways. This usually has an underlying element of monotheism or at least an assumption of reliable access to a single reality, and a motivation to bring people together and smooth over arguments. Sometimes it even dismisses language, especially if a concept like ‘experience’ is brought in to be primary. Irreplaceability, though, suggests that it’s not always possible to just re-phrase things in another way, and perhaps that ‘translating’ between the language of one religion and another might lose something, perhaps even more than is lost in ordinary translation between one natural language and another.

In fact, this view is so pervasive that I gave up asking Quakers which language they thought was irreplaceable, because when working at the intellectual level they insisted that it was all dispensable. However, I do from time to time – coming at the issue by a roundabout route – hear Quakers confess that there are certain key phrases without which they cannot explain Quakerism to others, for example. One of them is “that of God within” – usually followed by a disclaimer that the word ‘God’ could be replaced by some other noun, such as ‘good’, although as far as I can tell this is almost never done in conversation and the grammar of the phrase is very stable indeed.

For myself, I can pick out a few other phrases or words which I would regard as irreplaceable in my own spiritual vocabulary. I like to use terms which feel ‘plain’ to me in my writing – “God”, even when I’m aware that some readers will carry supernaturalist baggage with that word, and “the Light” as a picture of how God’s presence feels to me. Within the gendered structures of today’s society, the word “Goddess” – complete with a little bit of shock value in some settings – is vital to my understanding of the Divine. The image of the Spirit moving or flowing through a situation, and the idea of the Spirit guiding a community, seem to me to capture something which is part of my experience and not expressed in other phrases.

Are there terms which seem to you to be irreplaceable, to express something which cannot be put in other words?

G is for Grammar

“Theology as grammar.”

Wittgenstein suggests this, parenthetically, in the Philosophical Investigations S373. In Wittgenstein’s work, grammar is a big thing: he asks us to distinguish between the surface grammar of a remark – perhaps we could say the linguistic grammar, or the rules governing the way a word can be used in language – and the depth grammar, the way in which a word can coherently be used. Getting at this difference is difficult, but perhaps it helps to think of Mad Libs, a game where words are replaced according to their surface grammar. “The cat sat in the tree” makes sense and “the cat sat in the joy” does not, even though both ‘tree’ and ‘joy’ are nouns, because the deeper grammar of ‘joy’ (not least that it is abstract) dictates that it’s not something cats can sit in.

The idea that theology or doctrine might be regarded as the grammar of religion, the part which tells you which new sentences are acceptable and which are not, was taken up by Lindbeck as part of his broader religion as language analogy (for more on this, see my post about fluency). In particular, I talk in that post about the idea that fluent speakers of a language or a religion will be able to detect grammatical errors instinctively, rather than rationally.

It’s worth remembering here that, despite the impression sometimes given by English teachers and people who sell books about grammar, grammar in language is something which evolves over time, which is flexible and creative, and which varies according to context, rather than a set of absolute rules. In particular, grammar arises from language which is spoken and written, it doesn’t spring into life as a fully formed rule-set. This is especially obvious where subcommunities develop their own grammar; for a recent and light-hearted example, read Anil Dash’s post on the grammar of Lolcats, Cats Can Has Grammar. (Or should that be ‘haz grammar’?) In religion, too, then, we expect there to be books which record the grammar at a particular time, and for there to be some consistency through time as well as some change, but the real judges of correct grammar are the fluent speakers and not the books.

In a recent post called Quakerism as a Second Language, Craig Barnett compares the position of Quakerism today with minority languages, such as Welsh, which need both active support and a continuing process of creating new and relevant ways of speaking. In some ways, the portrait he offers of Quakerism sounds more like a dead language, like Cornish, being revived from books in the absence of fluent speakers. I don’t think this is actually the situation, and to extend the picture I would add to Craig’s list of useful resources for learning the Quaker way. Specifically, I would add that other Quakers and conversations with them are a powerful part of any attempt to learning the living tradition.

In order to learn a language, there comes a point at which it is necessary to practice producing it for oneself. I do think that this needs to be supported by explicit teaching of grammar (one of the things which was missing from my school experience of learning languages, and which I have found most rewarding in studying Biblical languages and conlangs), and an encouragement to listen and read and go on listening and reading (for longer than might seem necessary; many people, including myself, can’t accurately repeat back a word or phrase having heard it only once or twice). However, eventually a learner needs a space in which they can try out what they are learning, safely make mistakes, and be corrected. Especially in recent years, I have been lucky to have these spaces among Quakers, with family, friends, and Friends who are willing to engage in these conversations. How can we provide them more generally?

G is for Games

Games, especially the idea that the ways we speak can be regarded as language games, are key to many of the ideas in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

How would we explain to someone what a game is? I think that we’d describe games to him, and we might add to the description: “This and similar things are called ‘games’.” And do we know any more ourselves? Is it just that we can’t tell others exactly what a game is? – But this is not ignorance. We don’t know the boundaries because none have been drawn. (Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, Hacker and Schulte, 4th Ed, 2009, S69 – n.b., Wittgenstein wrote in sections so references are to these rather than to pages.)

Do we know what a game is? We can use the word correctly; we know one when we see it; we can describe some general features shared by most, but not all, games. For example, it’s important to our understanding of language games that they are guided by rules, although not everything we would call a game has rules (Mornington Crescent!). A lot of people are led by the term ‘language game’ to assume that our language games are somehow trivial, for fun or for children – but plenty of games involve real work and large amounts of real money (all professional sports, for example, and all games of chance where there’s a house that can, and will, win). Similarly, not all games are entertaining, not all games have winners and losers, and so forth. (Wittgenstein discusses this in S66.) In fact, using the word ‘game’ is itself a language game – to convey the meaning of it, “one gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way”, which is “not an indirect way of explaining, in default of a better one” because “any general explanation may be misunderstood too”. Rather, giving examples to demonstrate what we mean by a word “is how we play the game. (I mean the language-game with the word “game”.)” (S71)

So what is a language game? It’s a game we play with words. In S23, Wittgenstein gives a list of examples. They’re all quite small (sometimes it’s tempting to call, for example, a whole religion ‘a language game’, but that’s clearly not Wittgenstein’s use). They are very varied. Here are the first few.

Giving orders, and acting on them –
Describing an object by its appearance, or by its measurements –
Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) –
Reporting an event –
Speculating about the event –
Forming and testing a hypothesis –

Several of these involve things which we might not usually think of as being part of language. Measurements, for example, are sometimes taken to be numbers rather than words and hence external to language, although I think it’s clear on reflection that scales of measurement are agreed within communities in the same way that the uses of other words are agreed (agreed, that is, and debated – should we use inches or centimetres? should we reclaim the term ‘queer’?). Drawings and diagrams might also be thought of as non-verbal and hence outside language. I think that even drawings follow a set of rules for interpretation – they don’t use words, but they do function in the community in the ways that language does. (Compare the mysterious geometric shapes found in some cave paintings with a circuit diagram. You need the community rules around the use of images in order to understand them.)

In general, language games can involve only a few people, and they are quite specific. They can be creative, entertaining, or serious, or mundane. Wittgenstein’s list finishes with:

Guessing riddles –
Cracking a joke; telling one –
Solving a problem in applied arithmetic –
Translating from one language into another –
Requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

(Obviously that last one is especially of interest to those who want to know how language games might figure in our understanding of religion.) Overall, Wittgenstein’s point is to emphasise the diversity of things for which language is used, however. This is a broad view of language, and it challenges much of what had been said about language by previous philosophers, including Wittgenstein himself. He goes on to say:

It is interesting to compare the diversity of the tools of language and of the ways they are used… with what logicians have said about the structure of language.

This is a caution to Wittgenstein himself – part of his motivation for revisiting issues in philosophy of language from a very different perspective – but also a worthwhile reminder to all of us. If we have a theory about language, does it take into account all this diversity? If we think we know what ‘a language game’ is, have we considered all the possibilities? Just like the category ‘games’, which turned out to include all sorts of mostly unconnected activities, ‘language games’ are diverse and it is easy to underestimate their complexity.

F is for Fluency

One of the ideas I like to play with is an analogy, borrowed originally from George Lindbeck: religion as language. If a religion is like a language – if learning to speak Christian is like learning to speak English – all kinds of interesting possibilities appear about how we might understand religion. One of them is that knowing your religion really well, or being really competent in it, is like being fluent in a language.

Fluency has all kinds of aspects, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know. (And I don’t really, although at various times I’ve tried quite hard – I’m terrible at languages.) There’s vocabulary. There’s grammar. There’s the surrounding culture – knowing when to speak at all, for example. There are the adjustments in vocabulary and grammar for different situations, and often different ways of looking at the world. If you speak a language which distinguishes between formal and informal pronouns, for example, you have build a mental filter which sorts situations with reference to which is appropriate.

Compare someone learning a new language to someone learning a new religion. Some people will be happy with a few words picked up for fun, or enough to get by as a tourist – going to a wedding in a tradition not your own might be an occasion when you need a little of another religion in this way, for example. Some will learn a language in detail without ever really using it; it’s possible, if unusual, to study the Bible and know Christianity well without ever participating in a Christian community. It’s more common to have some grounding in a religion and then change later on (in this analogy ‘atheist’ or ‘secular’ can also be thought of as a language). As I have discussed in a previous post about belonging, it’s also possible to belong to more than one religion at once – and the image of religion as a language gives us an obvious analogy for this, being bilingual, something which is not provided by many other ways of discussing religion.

It can give us insights into the ways in which religion changes and yet is preserved – this is the focus of Lindbeck’s use of the analogy. He thinks of a language in a Wittgensteinian model, seeing that meaning is use, and focuses on the community which preserves the language or the religion. Just as English can change over time and in response to new circumstances and inventions (consider, among others, ‘mouse’, ‘gay’, and, for a religiously themed example, ‘icon’), so Christianity can change. Just as in English, fluent speakers have an instinct for what is grammatical and what is new, even in new uses of words (a new verb is still a verb), fluent Christians will know what is an acceptable development and what is not. In fact, Lindbeck is worried that without enough fluent users, religion might change beyond recognition, just as a language dies without speakers. If we share that worry, it would be worth asking: how do we train people to be fluent in our religion, whether that’s Christianity or another tradition? Can the language analogy help us to find better ways of teaching religion, as well as helping us to understand it better?

E is for Eschatology

Eschatology – the question of what happens after the end (eschatos in Greek) – is one of those topics in theology which doesn’t really interest me. Even in the work of philosophers and theologians to whom I am generally sympathetic (John Hick comes to mind as an example), I find reference to eschatological issues, such as eschatological evidence, a rather weak move. I don’t know what will happen, and furthermore, I’m inclined to think that I can’t know. Speculating might be a fun half-hour once in a while, but I find it hard to take it seriously. Even talk of a realised eschatology, a Kingdom of Heaven here and now, doesn’t seem all that inspiring to me unless it comes with an account of how we would know. What symptoms does a realised eschatology produce? What difference does it make in the world?

That said, questions about eschatology can provide an interesting example – in his Lectures on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein used the example of belief in a Last Judgement as a key example in his exploration. At least, that’s the impression we get; the records of these lectures consist of edited notes taken by students during the sessions, so any claims about what Wittgenstein said in them should be taken with a pinch of salt. So: Wittgenstein is recorded as saying, early on in the lectures,

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.” (p53)

If you are asking yourself: what does that even mean? you are in good company. A lot of the literature devoted to this topic is trying to work out what this means. It seems from material later on in the lectures that Wittgenstein isn’t denying the possibility of the opposing position – believing that there will be no Last Judgement is perfectly possible – but rather trying to carve out another possible position, one in which the concept of a Last Judgement is irrelevant or incomprehensible (something stronger than merely not understood).

Why shouldn’t one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in a Last Judgement? But I couldn’t either say “Yes” or “No” to that statement that there will be such a thing. Nor “Perhaps,” nor “I’m not sure.”

It is a statement which may not allow of any such answer. (p58)

Why is this? Interwoven with these claims in the lecture notes are comments about reason and the role of reason. In as much as there is an argument – Wittgenstein’s writing style, especially in later life, doesn’t go in much for traditional philosophical argument so much as lines of thought, and the fragmentary nature of lecture notes tends to increase these – the argument might be: a key mistake about religious beliefs, like those about the Last Judgement, is trying to make them subject to reason. They arise from the way people are and the way they live – their form of life – and not from thought or philosophy.

What we call believing in a Judgement Day or not believing in a Judgement Day – The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role. … I haven’t got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. (p55)

If this is so, then I’m making a mistake in my opening paragraph when I talk about knowing or ask about evidence for the belief. Indeed, all those questions arise from trying to reason about this topic, and that’s the wrong approach; I need to be looking at the context of these ideas and the forms of life from which they arise. In Wittgenstein’s perspective, belief in the Last Judgement isn’t about reason, and he’s just as critical of believers who make the issue about reason as of non-believers who make the same mistake. Ultimately,

Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn’t pretend to be. (p58)

Quotations from Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Cyril Barrett, University of California Press, 1966