cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
The pursuit of a philosophical metaethic which simultaneously manages to be postfoundationalist and non-relativist dominated much of 20th-century thought, and has continued (and no doubt will continue) to do so into the 21st century. Of the major thinkers associated with this project, one might not think first of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose remarks on ethics were admittedly both rare and brief. Still, I think it's worthwhile to use this post to quickly sketch a portrait of Wittgenstein's metaethical position, because his thought has been such a heavy influence on my own philosophy and theology, and because I think its explicitly mystical character ought to make it of particular interest to the metaethicist who is also a theologian.

Wittgenstein's most sustained enquiry into the metaethical was his 1929 "Lecture on Ethics". I recommend you follow the link to read the whole thing--it's pretty short--but the upshot is that Wittgenstein finally comes to the following conclusion:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men [sic] who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
This is a further development of the line of thought on ethics found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value.
If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental.
What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental.
It must lie outside the world.

6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions.
Propositions cannot express anything higher.

6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed.
Ethics are transcendental.
(Ethics and æsthetics are one.)

6.422 The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt …” is: And what if I do not do it? But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself.
(And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

6.423 Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.
And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.
Obviously, there is not much here to satisfy the typical analytical philosopher, who is likely to reject it as so much mystery-mongering. But we need to place Wittgenstein's metaethics into the context of his broader metaphysical project and his deflationary metaphilosophy, a project my understanding of which I have tried to sketch out in my previous posts on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's mysticism about ethics is, of course, not a specific refusal to address the ethical, but rather simply a subset of a broader mystical approach to the relationship between reality and language in general.

A potentially damning criticism of Wittgenstein's metaethics is that his mysticism doesn't provide any real insight into how we ought to actually go about the activity of ethical reflection. Mystical notions of transcendental good and evil don't necessarily provide all that much help in, say, determining the morality of drone warfare--or even whether one should cheat on a test. However, I think this understates the usefulness of Wittgenstein's guidance. It is of course true that Wittgenstein never took up these issues directly (and only rarely even indirectly) and that the following is thus of necessity somewhat speculative. That said, I think it should be possible (and not even difficult) to imagine what a Wittgensteinian ethical approach ought to look like from extrapolating from the work Wittgenstein did do on metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

Imagine if Wittgenstein were to have written an Ethical Investigations alongside the Philosophical Investigations, in which he applied the PI's quasi-phenomenological method to moral reasoning. Just as PI enquires into philosophy of language by examining the real-world ways in which human beings actually use language, this hypothetical EI would look at the actual ways we go about the process of reasoning morally--a phenomenology of morals, if you will. (It's been a while since I read the book, but I suspect that an argument could be made that Nietzsche had already done precisely that in his Genealogy of Morals--although I also suspect that, given Wittgenstein's known Tolstoyan sympathies, the Austrian philosopher would have come to very different conclusions had he undertaken the project than had the German.)

Ethical Investigations might even go on to speak of "ethics games" just as Philosophical Investigations does of language games. Just as Wittgenstein wanted ""to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life" (PI §23), in EI he would want to similarly focus on the way in which ethical discourse represented a human activity and way of life. This would not be moral relativism (remember that for Wittgenstein, there was some sort of "bastard sense" in which transcendent notions of good and evil still held reign) but rather a faith in the power of our ethical discourses as they take place "on the ground" to encourage moral behavior and discourage immoral behavior--a sort of critical moral realism coupled with a skepticism that philosophy (at least as the discipline has been practiced for the the last couple of centuries or so) represents the best tool for coming to moral conclusions.

Richard Rorty famously said in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that if one took care of freedom, truth would take care of itself. I think there is a sense that for Wittgenstein, ethics ought to be similarly capable of "taking care of itself." I think that Wittgenstein might have agreed with Rorty's subsequent comments in CIS:
If we are ironic enough about our final vocabularies, and curious enough about everyone else's, we do not have to worry about whether we are in direct contact with moral reality, or whether we are blinded by ideology, or whether we are being weakly "relativistic." (176-77)
No doubt there is plenty in the above paragraphs which would be perhaps somewhat less than totally persuasive to our hypothetical analytic interlocutor. So it goes. However, I do think there are many reasons why a Witggensteinian metaethical mysticism ought to prove especially attractive to the Christian moral theologian--and in particular, to the progressive Christian moral theologian--and I hope to discuss those in my next post.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
In a very real sense, my spiritual autobiography is simple and short, less of a spiritual journey and more of a spiritual home: stable, secure, sheltering. I have been in my life a sort of conservative Protestant, a pantheist, a deist, a neo-pagan, and of course an Anglican, but never an atheist. That there is a beauty beyond this world which undergirds it, a divinity which is the source and ground of Being itself, is a fact which has always been manifest in my experience.

In this sense, my journey has been theological, intellectual, a fluid relationship with ideas as I learned and grew in theological understanding but always moored by an unshakeable relationship with the God, the One Who Is, whom I sought to understand. I have had no crisis of faith--sometimes I wonder if this itself is not a failing--simply a long process of rejecting and accepting various understandings.

At the same time, of course, in a very real sense the two journeys cannot be divorced from each other. The ideas and images, the meanings and metaphors, which we use to grasp the divine provide the form and structure for our relationship with God; my Anglican spirituality is mediated by the prayers, practices, and sacraments of Anglicanism itself, as a culture and a church, which I have come to recognize as conveying the deepest of truths. And in this sense, my spirituality has indeed changed radically several times over my lifetime as it matured and evolved.

I was brought up in a secular, “culturally Christian,” atheistic-agnostic household, but I was brought up a Christian. I was read the Nativity story from an early age, even if sometimes before or after works of secular fiction such as The Pokey Little Puppy or The Cat in the Hat. I was sent to Methodist Sunday school, I am told in an attempt to expose me to many different beliefs and practices (an attempt which proved to be abortive past that point). And I did what any child does when someone they trust tells them that things are true: I believed.

I was not, however, afforded any resources in how to believe, or even really in what to believe. My Sunday school curriculum consisted of Bible stories--Jonah and the fish, Balaam and the donkey, the garden of Eden, the flood--without being taught how to approach these stories or to integrate them into my life. And so when, around the age of twelve, the cognitive dissonance between what I was taught in Sunday school and my secular understanding of the world and the way it worked grew too great, it was natural for me to reject Chrisitianity. Christianity’s claims seemed too limited, too small to be able capture the majesty of the divine.

In high school, however, at the private Roman Catholic school I attended, I was introduced to many important things which laid foundations for later developments in my theological thought. I was introduced to higher criticism, learning how our appreciation of the Biblical message can be enriched through understanding the human, historical processes which shaped its production. I learned also about Catholic social teaching and its roots in liberation theology, putting forth a model of what a progressive Christianity might look like, and the lives of such saintly figures as Dorothy Day and Clare of Assisi who would later become my personal heroes.

But most importantly, I was introduced to the sacraments, and to a method of “doing religion” which emphasized the sacramental life of the community rather than the piety of the individual believer, where one’s relationship with God was primarily mediated through ritual--through lived experience and action!--rather than written text, a medium by which I could directly experience being present in God’s movement. This resonated for me, as I recognized a beauty and sacred character in the mass. In college, I attended the weekly Roman Catholic mass each Sunday night (they were held at 10:30 p.m.!) and, beginning the second semester of my freshman year, was a member of the Newman Board, the executive committee overseeing the university’s Roman Catholic community.

Throughout high school and college, I studied--both inside and outside the classroom--theology and philosophy. Liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and Leonardo Boff provided for me a framework within which to understand Christian practice and belief in a way which respected my intellectual commitments, while feminist theologians like Rebecca S. Chopp provided ways in which the truth and beauty of Christianity could be preserved without its patriarchal baggage. At the same time, seeing the ways in which the great atheistic philosophers of the last 150 years--such heavyweights as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida--were unable despite their best efforts to exorcise the transcendent from their philosophical systems provided philosophical justification for my developing theology.

Even as I found within Catholicism the type of religious truth I had not found in the Protestantism of my childhood, however, I knew that I would never be at home within the Roman church, feeling that it would not be possible as a convert to occupy with intellectual honesty the type of complicated relationship to the church held by “renegade” cradle Catholic theologians like Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung. Anglicanism’s combination of Catholic liturgy and practice alongside greater intellectual freedom and diversity thus proved powerfully attractive, and I was baptized in the Episcopal Church in 2007, at the age of 23, and confirmed by the Rt. Rev. George Councell in 2008.

Since then, my Anglican faith has only deepened and developed as I have attempted to live out my new identity as an Anglican and as a Christian and have more truly learned what it is like to exist within (rather than merely adjacent to), and be nourished by, a community of Christian believers. So too has it been enriched by my close contact with Circle of Hope, a network of Anabaptist congregations taking root in Philadelphia and South Jersey, as they have exposed me to a radically different set of practices and theologies, as well as providing me with many opportunities to work on strengthening my own faith, as they attempt to live out their lives authentically in Christ and in fellowship with each other and the world, “be[ing] a safe place to explore and express God’s love” and “birthing a new generation of the church” (as their website puts it).

While my Anglo-Catholicism persists undisturbed--strengthened even!--it has deepened my respect for the power of low-church liturgy and my gladness that Anglicanism has deep roots in both high-church and low-church traditions, providing it with an enviable set of resources in attempting to speak to the many different types of people with whom it finds itself in dialogue.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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