How does philosophy relate to religion?

Wittgenstein on religion and religious belief

Table of Contents


Biographical summary

(The status of) religion in Wittgenstein's life

Essence of religion

Religious belief is not based on reasoning

Faith is a way of life

Can religious and non-religious people understand each other?





What is religion Anyone who expects a definition of this question or hopes for a precise definition of the essence will look in vain with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). This is undisputedly one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. His thinking has contributed significantly to directing the perspective of philosophy on language and initiating the beginning of a linguistic turn in philosophy. In relation to his lifetime, Wittgenstein's fame in the German-speaking area is of recent date, because while Wittgenstein has long enjoyed popularity in the Anglo-Saxon countries, at least in specialist circles, and was considered by those who know his world of thought to be one of the most important thinkers, at the same time as the one who had the intellectual Best represented in its location, it remained unknown to the general public in Germany until the end of the Second World War.1 Peter Sloterdijk therefore writes: "He [Wittgenstein] inoculated the Anglo-American world with the madness of ontological difference by making pre-critical empiricists wonder not how the world is, but that the world is."2

The present work tries to answer several questions: What does Wittgenstein understand by religion? How do reason and religious belief relate to one another? How important is religion in the life of the philosopher? The focus of the investigation is Wittgenstein's late philosophy, which is why, for example, statements about the role of religion in the treatise could be given less attention. The result of the analysis will show that religious belief plays a special role in Wittgenstein's life and is fundamentally different in comparison to scientific or conventional phenomena in everyday life. Methodically, the work begins with a short biography, discusses the nature of religion from the point of view of the philosopher and then determines the tension between religious belief and reason.

The topic is largely well developed - also due to the extensive estate. Weiberg has recently published a detailed discussion of the relationship between ethics and religion in Wittgenstein's early and late philosophy. Your interest is directed, on the one hand, to an introduction to the work and, on the other hand, to place the knowledge gained in the context of Wittgenstein's overall philosophy. Equally ambitious is Kroß ’goal of making a contribution to the elucidation of the philosophical program" Clarity as an end in itself "formulated by Wittgenstein himself. Last but not least, Regine Munz's company should be pointed out, which cites Wittgenstein's concept of religion as an example for an analysis of the language and method of the same. Munz concentrates her attention on Wittgenstein's middle creative phase and deals with his religious and linguistic philosophical thinking by limiting herself less to the content and more to the methodical dimension of his statements.

Biographical summary

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on April 26, 1889, the youngest of eight children of the married couple Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein. The family is of Jewish descent, but keeps its distance from Judaism and has the children baptized Roman Catholics.3 The father works in the steel industry and is described as a personality who exudes dynamism and strength, does not allow contradictions and is the undisputed head of the family. Until he was 14, Wittgenstein was raised privately and tutored by private tutors. After three years at the imperial and royal state high school in Linz, Wittgenstein began studying mechanical engineering in Berlin-Charlottenburg, later switched to the Technical University of Manchester as a research student, developed an increasing interest in the fundamentals of mathematics and finally dropped out of his engineering studies to focus on the Advice from Gottlob Freges to enroll at Cambridge University. With the outbreak of World War I, Wittgenstein signed up for voluntary military service, but continued to occupy himself with logic and philosophy, so that in 1918 he completed the manuscript of the “Logical-Philosophical Treatise” in Italian captivity and in 1921 with Russell's support in W. Ostwald's “Annalen der Naturphilosophie “Can publish. Returning to Vienna from captivity in 1919, he surprised his family with the decision to give away his fortune and become a primary school teacher4 and teaches for six years in different places in Lower Austria. In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge. His "Logical-Philosophical Treatise", which was published in 1922 at the suggestion of G.E. Moore with the title "Tractatus logico-philosophicus" has been renamed, is recognized as a dissertation and Wittgenstein takes up a teaching position at the university. In the same year his philosophical work "Some Remarks on Logical Form" appears, which already contains the first signs of a reorientation of Wittgenstein's philosophical interest, namely the turn to the variety of "logical functions" of language instead of the previously ostensibly considered function of representation. In 1939 Wittgenstein succeeded G.E. Moore called. He gives lectures on questions of aesthetics, psychology, ethics and religious belief.5 His teaching activity is interrupted by voluntary work in the hospital service during the Second World War. In the period after that, the last version of Part 1 of the “Philosophical Investigations” with its three blocks, §§ 1-189 from 1938, §§ 190-421 from 1944 and §§ 422-693. At the end of 1947, Wittgenstein gave up his chair, which at his request was given by G.H. v. Wright is taken over. He retires to Ireland, where he spends most of the time completely secluded, and dies on April 29, 1951 in Cambridge.

(The importance of) religion in Wittgenstein's life

Both Wittgenstein's early and late philosophies are characterized by an unbroken interest in religion, although there is no relevant work that clearly expresses his point of view on religious belief.6 Statements about religion appear at various points in his publications, such as in his secret diaries written in captivity (1914-1916) or in the mixed notes that appeared in the estate in the form of short notes.7 There is also a lecture in transcripts from 1938.

John L. Mackie describes Wittgenstein's statements about religion as "religion without belief"8. In this observation, strange at first glance, Mackie emphasizes the various uses of the word “believe” in colloquial language. In this, the expression "believe" is mostly used cognitively: "Believe that" is a common designation for assumptions (hypotheses) and putative beliefs. In the course of his analysis, Mackie points out that Wittgenstein's understanding of religion does not allow the word “believe” in the usage sense just explained.9 For him, sentences of religion represent a separate language game compared to the language games of the sciences, everyday language and the philosophy of religion, which sometimes have terms and grammatical rules of the other language games mentioned. Language games, explains Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations, refer to "self-contained systems of understanding"10, thus refer to a certain way of using signs, words and sentences such as questions, statements or commands that can occur in everyday situations.11 The fact that religious sentences form their own language game with their own rules is correctly linked by Kroß with the question of what “reference status” these sentences can have or which criteria are available to divide religious beliefs that suggest cognitive use from cognitive ones Sentences in "religious disguise"12 occur to perceive distinguishably. Likewise, it is doubtful whether religious sentences, provided they are non-referential and therefore evade any verification possibilities that are used for assertive sentences in everyday language or science, have any meaning at all.13 Wittgenstein dealt with such questions throughout his life and underpinned them with his personal experiences of faith, the result of which was reflected not only in the treatise but also in the philosophical investigations.

Essence of religion

In Wittgenstein's eyes, religion is initially "the deepest calm seabed, so to speak, which remains calm no matter how high the waves go"14. And only those who can surrender to religion will be able to dispel all doubts, because only they [religion] can "destroy vanity and penetrate all crevices"15. Faith characterized by passion can cause one to be turned around and moved by something "16. Wittgenstein compares faith with wisdom several times, whereby the comparison never turns out to be in favor of wisdom. To emphasize the contrast, he resorts to color examples and connotations. While wisdom is gray, religion is "colorful"17 and the former is even associated with stupidity:

“Wisdom is something cold, and so stupid. (Faith, on the other hand, a passion.) One could also say: wisdom only hides life from you. (Wisdom is like cold, gray ash that covers the embers.) "18

Wittgenstein explains why wisdom deserves to be degraded by stating that an essential statement of Christianity is that good teaching cannot help people, that instead he has to change his life.19 Once a person has decided in favor of religion, he cannot easily undo this decision because he has given up his free will, his whole person in favor of an authority, and has made himself completely subservient to it. This point is reached when “You no longer lean on the earth, but hang in the sky. Then everything is different, and it is no 'wonder' if you can do what you cannot now (the hanging person is of course to be looked at as well as the standing person, but the play of forces in him is completely different and he can therefore do completely different than the one standing. "20 ) Anyone who turns to religion, so Wittgenstein, makes a decision, “something like the passionate decision-making for a reference system [...]. So although it is faith, it is a way of life, or a way of judging life. "21 Here, people's attitude towards life and their opinion of the world are significantly changed. In his description of that decision in favor of religion, Wittgenstein states that religious belief is directed towards a reference system and at the same time has to address the conscience of people. If this attempt is successful, the person addressed can be won over to the reference system on a voluntary basis: “It would be as if someone were letting me see my hopeless situation on the one hand, and on the other hand they would be the rescue tool until I could come out of my own accord , or at least not led by the hand of the instructor who rushed towards and grabbed it. "22 Although the choice to take up a religious life cannot be forced, Wittgenstein seems to suggest to the reader that there is no equal alternative, only the possibility between a good and tolerable life and a bad and unbearable life. Weiberg points out in her dispute with Wittgenstein that for this religion above all a therapeutic task, because it is a "lifeline" for the seeker and the doubting23 offers. Wittgenstein remarks that the Christian religion is tailored to those “for those who need infinite help, that is, only for those who feel infinite need [...]. The Christian faith - I think - is the refuge in this greatest need. "24 This privilege is granted to man when he is "given to open his heart [...] in repentant confession to God"25. If you voluntarily decide to practice a religion, the consequence of this decision requires certain skills, such as being able to open your heart, the "dignity as an excellent person"26 to lose as well as to believe in various things that seem rationally irrational and paradoxical. These abilities are partly natural to humans and partly attainable through learning.

Religious belief is not based on reasoning

In 1938 Wittgenstein gave "Lectures on Religious Faith" in Cambridge. By means of various observations of language games and without recourse to a clear thesis, Wittgenstein developed his reflection on religious belief. It is about the example of a person who believes in the Last Judgment, the meaning that this belief has for him and the question of whether a person who does not have this belief can even understand what this meaning is for the believer lies.

In the introduction, Wittgenstein states that the question of the Last Judgment requires special attention, because this is to be classified on a completely different level than, for example, the question of an airplane that is observed in the sky.27

“Suppose someone was a believer and said, 'I believe in a judgment day,' and I said, 'Well, I'm not sure. Possibly. ’You would say that there is a huge gap between us. When he said, 'There's a German plane overhead,' and I said, 'Possibly. I'm not sure, would you say that our opinions are pretty close. It is not the question of whether I am somehow close to him, but rather it is on a completely different level [...] "28

If I take a position on both the first and the second question that I am not sure about it, there is a huge difference between the statements of both interlocutors with regard to the first question, whereas the answer to the second question is whether this aircraft is is a German or not, seems to be less of a problem. If someone believes in the Last Judgment and emphasizes this belief in the foreground of his life by aligning his actions and speaking to it, according to Wittgenstein his belief cannot be made controversial because, as Weiberg puts it, he is "absolute security" towards others possesses - "a security that, strictly speaking, can never be seen by other people, whether it actually exists or not."29


1 Störig, Hans Joachim, Small World History of Philosophy, Frankfurt / Main 2004, p. 737 f.

2 Sloterdijk, Peter, preliminary remark, in: Ders., Wittgenstein, selected and presented texts by Thomas H. Macho, Frankfurt / Main 2001, p. 8.

3 See Lorenz, Kuno, Wittgenstein, in: Mittelstraß, Jürgen (Ed.), Enzyklopädie. Philosophy and the History of Science, Vol. 4, Mannheim / Vienna / Zurich 1996, pp. 764 et seq.

4 Cf. Weiberg Anja, "And the justification has an end." The meaning of religion and ethics for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and understanding of his works, Diss., Vienna 1997, p. 14 f.

5 See Lorenz, p. 765.

6 Cf. Wuchterl, Kurt, Philosophy of Religion according to Wittgenstein, in: Haller, Rudolf; Huebner, Adolf; Leinfellner, Werner; Weingartner, Paul (ed.), Series of publications by the Wittgenstein Society, Vol. 10/2, 1983, pp. 60 f.

7 Cf. Kroß, Matthias, clarity as an end in itself. Wittgenstein on philosophy, religion, ethics and certainty, Diss., Berlin 1993, p. 102.

8 Mackie, John L., The Miracle of Theism. Arguments against the Existence of God, Oxford 1998, f. 12.

9 See Kroß, p. 101.

10 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §23.

11 In a language game, sentences have the property of moves that would be nonsensical outside of the game. The meaning of a sentence arises from the practical context, is based on rules that are changeable and context-dependent. See also Munz, Regine, Religion as an example. Language and method in Ludwig Wittgenstein in theological perspective, Bonn 1997, p. 105.

12 Kroß, p. 101.

13 Labron, Tim, Wittgenstein's point of view, London / New York 2006, p. 47 f.

14 Wittgenstein, Mixed Remarks, 1946, p.525.

15 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1946, p. 517.

16 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1946, p. 525.

17 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1947, p. 538.

18 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1947, p. 530.

19 See Ders, Mixed Remarks, 1946, p. 525.

20 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1937, p. 495.

21 Ders .. Mixed Remarks, 1947, pp. 540 f.

22 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1947, p. 541.

23 Weiberg, p. 67.

24 Wittgenstein, Mixed Remarks, 1944, p. 514.

25 Ders., Mixed Remarks, 1944, p. 544.

26 Ders., Miscellaneous Remarks, 1944, p. 514.

27 Barett, Cyril, Wittgenstein on Ehtics and Religious Belief, Oxford / Cambridge 1991, p. 179.

28 Wittgenstein, Lecture on Religious Faith, p. 75.

29 Weib erg, p. 127.

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