cjbanning: (Ludwig Wittgenstein)
In my post on Wittgenstein's Metaethical Mysticism, I tried to outline the metaethical thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein as found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the "Lecture on Ethics." In the conclusion of that post, I noted that 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 here I intend to take up the challenge of putting forth a couple of those reasons, with the remaining being relegated to subsequent posts.

First and most obviously, the mystical character of Wittgenstein's philosophy puts it in clear sympathy with Christianity's own deep and rich mystical tradition, seen in such figures as Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and, in the twentieth century, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Wittgenstein's notion (cf. TLP 6.522) of a mystical element at the limits of our language about which we are unable to speak, but which can be shown ("makes itself manifest"), holds much in common with the via negativa of Christian apophaticism, in which God is only able to be defined by that which God is not. "I would be speaking as incorrectly in calling God a being as if I called the sun pale or black," says Eckhart. "God is neither this nor that."

Fr. Robert Barron notes:
The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”
Furthermore, Wittgenstein's metaethics takes our moral intuitions seriously without reducing ethics to simply "what feels right." In the "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein noted that while he believed our moral intuitions and beliefs "run against the boundaries of language" he also believed that they represented that "which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it." This is important to the Christian for whom our moral sense is some combination of the reflection of the divine image in us and/or the movement of the Holy Spirit on our hearts. "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight," St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans,
but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (2:15-16, NRSV)
At the same time, of course, our Christian faith teaches us that we are fallen into sin and thus prone to error, and that therefore what is good and bad cannot be directly reducible to what feels good or bad:
If you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:14-16, NRSV).
Wittgenstein's metaethics allows for this in his distinction between relative statements of value (which are not philosophically problematic) and "the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable" which can only be understood mystically.
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: (Trinity)
Tony Jones has challenged "all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15."

"Write something substantive about God," Tony writes. "Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God." He's afraid that progressive Christians "don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc."
We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere.

It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn’t relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn’t cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens.
Tony's challenge reminds me of the story of Moses before the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3. Moses knows that when he returns to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt to tell them of God's promise of liberation for them, they're going to want to know just who this god is who is giving the promise. "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is this god's name?' what shall I say to them?" asks Moses.

And God answers back to Moses, "I am who I am":
Thus you shall say to the Israelites, "I AM has sent me to you. YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is my name forever, and my title for all generations.
Tony's point seems to be that progressive Christians, when we speak of justice and love and liberation and mercy, need to be prepared also to answer the question that Moses knew the Israelites would ask him: "What is the name of the god who has sent you?"

God is who God is. Liberals know well that God transcends any attempt by human beings to describe the divine, that our attempts to make God fit into our own categories and concepts can quickly become idolatry. As Scott Paeth puts it:
we are using human language to describe the indescribable, and referring to a human being as the incarnation of that which is beyond all created order. These are the paradoxes that exist at the heart of the Christian tradition. This is what makes it a mystery. In speaking of God, the answers aren't at the back of the book. And the mistake that is too often made by conservative and liberal Christians alike is to believe that in their God talk they are speaking about something that can be definitively spoken of, rather than alluding to something that in the end we know only in partial and fragmentary ways.

What this ought to lead to is a great deal of theological humility, especially about the kinds of things that seem to animate contemporary American Christians so thoroughly. Yet if as Christians we are to attempt to live lives in accord with our faith, we have no choice except to attempt to speak of the unspeakable and know the unknowable. The challenge then is to do so in ways that acknowledge our inherent limitations, and the ultimate futility of any attempt to speak definitively of God.
For Paeth, as of course for me, it all comes back to Wittgenstein's Tractatus:
I am always drawn back in these conversations to the ending of Ludwig Wittenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where after sketching out the basis of an approach to philosophy that would come to dominate the discipline in the ensuing years, he ended with the much misunderstood dictum: "Of that about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent."

For Christians of course, it is possible to recognize the truth of that, and yet feel compelled to speak nevertheless. The basis of our speech though, is always the very human reality of Jesus Christ, and our very human attempts to understand the connection between him and the God whom we believe he revealed. Once again, this ought to lead us to a great deal of humility. More's the pity it seldom does.
At the same time, I take Tony's point. What can we say as progressive Christians about God? And as I reflect about what insight our revealed tradition has given us into the nature of God, two points stand out in particular. One is broadly Abrahamic; the other is very specifically Trinitarian Christian. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the two points reinforce and illuminate each other.

First off, God is concerned with justice. This is incredibly clear throughout the Hebrew scriptures. The prophet Micah asks, "What does YHWH require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In the first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet likewise instructs Israel: "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Jeremiah agrees:
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphans, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. "Shall I not punish them for these things," says YHWH, "and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?"
These are just a few of the most obvious examples, but the thread of justice weaves itself visibly through the entirety of the scriptures. The very worst sin Israel could commit is to turn away from God and commit idolatry, but the second is to fail to take care of the society's most vulnerable members.

That is the God who has sent us.

The preoccupation with justice continues into the Christian scriptures. Part of the process of our salvation is "justification"--literally the process by which we are "made just" by taking the character of God's divine justice upon ourselves. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus says that those who are persecuted for the sake of justice are especially blessed: for the kindom of Heaven is theirs. Similarly, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus instructs us to strive first for the justice of God's kindom--and tells us that it is in the process of that striving that that kindom is made available to us.

That is the God who has sent us.

And of course, God's concern with justice is seen in the witness of the saints, perhaps most visibly in Francis and Clare, but also in Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and in the whole number of those compelled by the grace of God and the love of Christ to do our part to create a just and loving society in which all are capable of flourishing, in tearing down the sinful social structures which stand in the way of that flourishing.

That is the God who has sent us.

Secondly, God exists in community, in relationship, in dialectic, in conversation, in dialogue. I've already written about this character of the Triune God of Trinitarian Christianity extensively elsewhere in this blog, so I won't belabor the point here. But the God who has sent us is the God who is Parent and Child and Spirit all at once, three persons in the unity of a single being, each the equal of the others, all complicated and messy and perichoretic. The God who has sent us models for us a way of living in community and engaging in dialogue. The God who has sent us is dynamic, never static.

That is the God who has sent us. And it is because we have been sent by this God that we progressive Christians strive and work for the justice of God's kindom, because we have been promised by our God that it will indeed be opened unto us.

That is the God who has sent us. Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The issue which Wittgenstein's mysticism foregrounds is not unique to his philosophy, as it seems some of his interpreters would have one believe, but rather are as old as philosophy itself, with poststructuralist theorists like (here it comes) that of Jacques Derrida or Julia Kristeva locating it in Plato's cosmological Timaeus, in the notion of the chora, the chasm which lies beyond the limits of time and space. (Derrida omits the article before the term chora, claiming that “the definitive article presupposes the existence of a thing, the existent chorato which, via a common name, it would be easy to refer” [“Chora.” Trans. Ian McCloud. Chora L Works. By Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman. Ed. Jeffrey Kipnis and Thomas Leeser. New York: Monacelli, 1997: 17]. I know of no such grammatical principle in either English or French, and thus I refrain from this practice.) Kristeva acknowledges that naming the chora (even in Greek) “ontologizes” it, i.e. makes it a “thing,” but concludes that we cannot not talk about it either (Kristeva, Julia. “From Revolution in Poetic Language.” Trans. Margaret Walker. The Nortan Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001: 2171).

She thus turns to the ontologized term and its self-contradiction as an example of the very difficulties inherent in its use. When we speak of chora we do not so much use language as reveal its limits. By relying on a brutish display of linguistic force, a “bastard reasoning,” we can assert that the chora is pre-symbolic—not de-ontologizing the term chora but at least recalling to the mind the need to de-ontologize (2171). This assertion of negative theology—the via negativa—is enough for Kristeva to feel she can dismiss any worries that she is illegitimately ontologizing the chora.

Derrida is distrustful of projects like Kristeva's which apply bastard reasoning in order to build a psychoanalytic theory upon the chora—there is a point, it seems,” Derrida argues, “where the relevance of this rhetorical code meets a limit and must be questioned as such, must become a theme and cease to be merely operatory”—but nonetheless recognizes that its very impossibility brings its reader to the problems of philosophy which it fails to denote (31). For Kristeva and Derrida, then, the quietist conclusion of the Tractatus must be rejected.

Note that my appeal to Derrida and Kristeva has not really gotten us any farther than we were before (which is why, I think, any accusation of “Derrida-izing” Wittgenstein must ultimately fall flat); we have only put forth the problem in a way which will be familiar to students of the postmodernist Continental tradition and, in so doing, perhaps made clear its essential features. Derrida and Kristeva merely seem to have fallen into the same trap that Wittgenstein has in the Tractatus. Both Derrida and Kristeva's responses do not, after all, seem to be significantly different from what we have already called the ineffabilist interpretation: "there is something which is sort of true, but sort of not, because we really cannot talk about it, but we sort of can, and you know what I'm trying to say, right?" No wonder the analytic philosophers throw up their arms in disgust!

But my interest is not so much in how Wittgenstein's conception of the mystical is similar to the Derridean or Kristevan chora—the similarities are undoubtedly great—but how differently he talks about it, the stark disconnect between the philosophical methods employed. Invoking these two French thinkers clarifies for me exactly what it is that we need from the Austrian: a sustained defense of this type of bastard reasoning. Instead, we get a call for silence:
7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Thus ends the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Having concluded that philosophy can produce no truths, no genuine insights gained, the project is drawn to a close. Philosophy is finished.

Yet note that the quietism of the Tractatus, like any quietism which is spoken aloud (or, in this case, written down), is always-already unstable; as Russell scathingly points out, “Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said” (xxiii). "Wittgenstein did want to write the Tractatus,” Moyal-Sharrock notes, “indeed put great effort into writing it, and into producing its translation. So that not following the strictly correct method in the Tractatus, far from implying a repudiation of what was achieved, was essential to achieving it” (168)

Nor is there anything to lead us to assume that the Tractarian project of a “strictly incorrect” but nontheless elucidatory method of philosophy (cf. proposition 6.53) is unique to the Tractatus itself or to Wittgenstein; proposition 6.53 immediately makes one think of the Platonic dialogues (and their similarly therapeutic-poetic formats), as Russell does when he notes in the Introduction that “[i]t is true that the fate of Socrates might befall a man who attempted this method of teaching, but we are not to be deterred by that fear, if it is the only right method” (xxiii).

Wittgenstein too notes that he has “fallen a long way short of what is possible” because his “powers [of expression] are too slight for the accomplishment of the task,” adding, “May others come and do better” (pg. 4). So we do not have one single descent into bastard reasoning, like Dante's into Hell, so as to forever more escape it, but one more work in a line of bastard reasonings—an entire bastard discourse, that is, which as a collective we can and do call “philosophy”—which is neither the first nor the last of its kind, nor should it be.

That said, it is true that Wittgenstein, in his Preface, claims to “have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems” (pg. 4); it is equally true that following the writing and publishing of the Tractatus he dropped out of philosophy. But even this is painted as a personal enlightenment―of the sort which might more easily come to a St. Teresa or a Julian of Norwich than an analytic philosopher—which cannot be reliably shared or reproduced. “Perhaps,” Wittgenstein suggests in the Preface, “this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts expressed in it―or at least similar thoughts” (pg. 3). Indeed, for austere readers and some varieties of non-therapists, the only thing that makes the nonsense of the Tractatus more likely to be elucidatory than that of, say, Lewis Carroll's poem “Jabberwocky”―if the Tractatus is in fact more likely to be so (there is indeed, after all, a good deal to be learned about language and its limits by reading Carroll's poem)—is an accident of historical contingency. For the ineffabilist, presumably there is some truth which inheres in the Tractatus which does not in Carroll—although for all one knows, perhaps the meaning of life is that the snark was a boojum after all!

This not to say there is not an uneasy sense―born of the Tractatus' own bastard logic, I believe―that philosophy up to Wittgenstein has been a productive struggle in the sense that it has been striving for its own dissolution which it at last finds in the Tractatus, only afterwards being replaced with the therapeutic approach described in 6.53. At the very least there is the assertion that for at least those who can be said to understand the work it represents an end to their philosophizing, even if other people might well need other works. The Tractatus is, in the end, a quietist document, and this should not be glossed over.

Nor need it be, since Wittgenstein's philosophizing does not in fact end here. Enter the Philosophical Investigations: at some point prior to Wittgenstein's return to philosophy, he clearly abandoned the quietism of the Tractatus; when contrasted with the style of the previous work, in the Investigations he has become downright chatty. This might seem obvious and trivial, but it is worth saying nonetheless, for it represents the most fundamental shift and break between the late and early Wittgensteins.

What we have in the Investigations is the articulation of an entire bastard language. The halfway language, neither sense nor quite what we would typically call nonsense, which the non-therapists attempt to rehabilitate in the Tractatus suddenly becomes all of language. Language guesses/plays/sings/solves (§23) but no longer does it mean in the Tractarian sense. Instead, questions of ontology drop out altogether.
For this is what disputes between Idealists, Solipsists, and Realists look like. The one party attack the normal form of expression as if they were attacking a statement; the others defend it, as if they were stating facts recognized by every reasonable human being. (§402)
Language is described; the world―the mystical―is experienced.

But this recognition only pushes back the demand for explanations, which (we have argued) neither the austere readers nor the ineffabilists nor the non-therapists could quite provide, one step further, so that it now engulfs the Investigations as well as the Tractatus. The non-therapist's reading of the Tractatus is dependent on the premise that nonsense sentences can have “performative significance” (Brand 332), that we can articulate grammatical rules (Moyal-Sharrock 162) or make “purely linguistic proposals” (Matthew B. Ostrow, Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U P, 2002: 4, describing Carnap) or use our language “intransitively”—in short, that some nonsense is desirable (Philip M. Hallie, “Wittgenstein's Exclusion of Metaphysical Nonsense.” The Philosophical Quarterly16 [1966]: 101-104).

The Investigations does not defend any of these premises. Wittgenstein does not argue that meaning is use—indeed, he explicitly recognizes that for some ways we use the word “meaning,” meaning is not use:
For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (§43)
Instead he simply demonstrates—makes manifest—the manifold of ways that language can function. If some set of analytic philosophers wish to exclude the mystical from their language game, then they are free to do so—or at least to try. And, Wittgenstein recognizes, often it is best to do so. We cannot always live in an ecstatic state in which things are and are not true, do and do not exist. For science, law, and many other language games, trying to grasp what is—the mystical—that is, to theorize—would be a grave mistake: a confusion, an illness, a disease.

Having grown out of the mystical which, resisting language, both is and is not, Wittgenstein's anti/theory similarly both is and is not a theory. This is not a naïve positivism, in which comprehension is confused for apprehension and the theoretical structures used to understand the world are rendered invisible. That would be the position he attacks, that of the Saint Augustine and the picture theory, when he exposes the insidious assumptions which underly our ways of talking about language: “How does one know?” is the constant refrain throughout the first hundred sections of the Investigations, giving the lie to the idea that our language games are transparent or immediate. Wittgenstein recognizes and accepts the deeply theoretical nature (by which we mean, based on unquestioned rules) of every game, including Wittgensteinian therapy. Wittgenstein's anti/theory (like Foucault's, ultimately) is descriptive, not destructive.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
The Tractatus opens with what appears to be a description of an ideal language of a vaguely logical positivist character, but which by the end of the work has revealed itself to have taken a strange—and, to many philosophers, even alarming—turn: it announces that everything it has been saying (and continues to say) has been (and is) nonsense, espouses the mystical character of not only ethics and religion but also grammar, and then concludes with a quietist call to silence.

Most troubling has been the first claim, that the Tractatus itself is nonsensical. Wittgenstein's exact words are:
6.54  My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he [sic] used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
Interpretations of this passage in the Tractatus (at least, those which do not simply assume he was wrong and move on) can be said to fall into three groups: the austere reading (emerging, as Danièle Moyal-Sherrock not incorrectly notes, “not accidentally in the wake of Deconstruction” [“Good Sense of Nonsense: A Reading of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as Nonself-Repudiating.” Philosophy 82 (2007): 147]), which claims that Tractarian nonsense must be rejected completely; the ineffable reading, which argues that Tractarian nonsense gestures towards ineffable truths which cannot be put into words; and non-therapeutic readings which claim that by nonsense Wittgenstein meant something quite technical and limited and which should not, properly understood, bother us. 

As Roy Brand has argued in his essay “Making Sense Speaking Nonsense" (The Philosophical Forum 35.3 [2004]: 311-339), the three positions are actually in substantial agreement with each other, with most of their apparent differences being the result of different emphasis and terminology (331-333). After all, all three schools of interpretation agree that Tractarian sentences are, by the standards of the Tractatus, nonsensical. (They hardly could deny it without departing from Wittgenstein at the start.) And all three acknowledge also that those sentences nonetheless have a specific function which they can play, at least sometimes do play, and which Wittgenstein seemed to want them to play, in the natural history of human beings. Even in early Wittgenstein, then, we have the conception of sentences which function without signifying, of (what Wittgenstein does not yet call) meaning as use, which will go on to become the main impetus of Wittgenstein's discussions in the Investigations. The disagreement, then, is over exactly what words we should use to describe these sentences.

Wittgenstein's description, such as it is, of the mystical is found in the following Tractarian proposition:
6.522 There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
This seems to result only in meaningless mystery-mongering. (I am indebted to Paul Horwich for the term "mystery-mongering.") If the mystical cannot be put into words, how can we say it exists? Obviously, we cannot; therefore we require the elucidatory nonsense of the Tractatus to gesture towards it. But how can we say that the nonsense of Tractatus gestures towards it—remember we cannot speak of it at all. So we are left not being able to say that we can't say that we can't say that we can't say . . . that we can't say, an infinite regress of meaningless sounds following meaningless sounds of which we seem we will never, ever, be able to escape. Even the suggestion that we should not talk about the mystical lest we be trapped in this infinite regress—the Tractatus' quietist conclusion—manages to fall within it. Thus the implicit ineffablism of even the austere reading:
It is a feature of the austere reading that these propositions mean nothing, but they must somehow succeed in attracting our metaphysical urge to go beyond what can be said and this illusion to be nothing more than nonsense. [. . .] But for this to be successful, so the austere reading claims, we must attribute some transitory sense to the propositions of the book or, alternatively, go beyond those and understand the author the book in some ineffable way. (Brand 333)
Similarly, even the non-therapists, who attempt to preserve the say/show distinction in order to hold off this ineffability, are nonetheless left with sentences halfway between sense and nonsense which we are nonetheless able to understand.

It is understandable, then, why it is tempting for philosophers to want to view Wittgenstein's early mysticism as a mistake—or, for the austere reading, something which he is even then rejecting—and to see his later philosophy as a break away from and a rejection of this mysticism. However, there are two reasons why this view of Wittgenstein's development is unsatisfactory. The first is that Wittgenstein's critiques of the Tractatus—for example, as found in the Investigations at §23, §97, and §114, and by implication spread liberally throughout §§1 to 120 seem not to focus, or even touch, on the mysticism of the Tractatus but on the positivistic characteristics of the work, the so-called "picture-theory of language" which many non-therapists understand it to be espousing (wrongly, I would argue--for any non-austere, non-ineffable understanding of nonsense, the existence of ethics and the truth of the picture theory are in fact incommensurate.). Furthermore, there are statements in the Investigations which Wittgenstein seems to endorse and which thus reaffirm the Tractatus' mystical vision:
The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of pure nonsense [. . .] that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. (§119)
Here is where the accusation of reading postmodernism into Wittgenstein will begin. But if we are to take Wittgenstein seriously, then we must turn to as guides those thinkers who do, as he does, take mysticism seriously—and these are not to be found (at least not in any great number) within the analytic tradition. In my next post I'll compare Wittgenstein's mysticism with the thought of two French post-structuralists, Derrida and Kristeva.

 

cjbanning: (Trinity)
Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy is, throughout his philosophical career(s) but perhaps most strikingly in the Philosophical Investigations, characterized by its deflationary nature, and by its resistance to theory. To a Wittgensteinian, philosophical theories do not provide the answer to philosophical questions; instead, the urge to theorize is the source of philosophical questions. We as philosophers strive for “something like a final analysis of our forms of language,” but to the Wittgensteinian this is little more than a pipe dream (Investigations §91). Philosophical “therapy” is thus necessary to “uncover [. . .] one or another piece of plain nonsense” (§119).

Theorists, understandably, are not sure what to make of these claims. Is Wittgenstein advancing a theory about theories—a self-contradicting one, in that case? A meta-theory (but what would such a thing be)? An empirical observation (how is it falsified)? Something he just thinks is true (for what value of truth)? Wishes were true? Is amused (or disturbed) that people treat seriously?

I will not respond at length to each of the possibilities that have been put forth here, but I will say that none of them seem, to me, to be satisfactory. Wittgenstein does seem to be making serious, normative claims about how we should and should not talk about and perform philosophy, and seems to make meaty theoretical claims about what we are doing and how we are doing it when we philosophize—that there really are “bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language” that we need to get rid of (§119).

The therapist can get around these questions, of course, dissolving each one of them in turn; when Wittgenstein's intelocutor asks what is the essence of a language game, Wittgenstein responds with a rumination on the multiplicitous nature of various types of games (§§65-66). But at some point this pas de deux will seem less like a reasoned conversation and more like something out of Monty Python's famous "Argument Clinic" sketch: the Wittgensteinian always has an answer, but it's never the type of answer a traditional analytic philosopher can accept or respect; leaving both the skeptic and the foundationalist with the feeling that they simply have not been addressed and so that they, along with their claims, have simply been arbitrarily rejected (see Gaile Pohlhaus and John R. Wright, “Using Wittgenstein Critically: A Politcal Approach to Philosophy,” in Political Theory 30.6 [2002]: 802.)



These questions centering on Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy will be recognizable to any student of twentieth- and twenty-first century thought, from the Frankfurt School through contemporary queer theory: it is the question of soi-disant “critical” theory, theory which attacks, deconstructs, turns upon itself. Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault (London: Routledge, 1991), calls this impulse “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). The problem with this analysis is that an instrument needs a wielder to use it, and she must use it with a purpose. What is Wittgenstein's purpose?

Anti-theory, it seems, can be a useful critical tool in service of an independently held philosophical position but not a fully-realized, coherent method of living in the world on its own; in many ways, this is the argument I made in The Eschatology of Radical Negativity. Unable to recognize even temporary, strategic, or contingent foundations, it can only blunder on, destructively tearing theoretical structures down for no reason it can articulate. As far as illnesses go, this can seem far more terminally cancerous than any philosophical theory!

Instead of trying to resolve these contradictions, however, I would suggest that Wittgenstein would have us embrace them: he is advocating not “anti-theory” but anti/theory, something which at once both is and is not a theory. This is not merely reading poststructuralism and deconstruction back into Wittgenstein in an eisegetical manner, as some have suggested of far more modest readings than this one (although of course one's reading of poststructuralism and deconstruction will of course influence the exegesis she performs), writing Derrida (for example) “on top of” Wittgenstein.  Instead, I'll demonstrate in a future post how recognizing Wittgenstein's use of this vital contradiction allows us to see the answer to one of the vexed questions of Wittgenstein scholarship—the interpretation of Wittgenstein's other great philosophical treatise, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and its relation to Wittgenstein's later philosophy—by recognizing the strand of mysticism which persists from the Tractatus into Wittgenstein's later work.
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.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
This is the third in a series of posts reposting content from "Our Lenten Collage," in which my cell at the time blogged our way through the Lenten season of 2009.

12 March 2009: Going Deep with Prayer )
cjbanning: (Default)
David B. Hart has a nice piece in the First Things blog today which articulates something I've been trying to express at least as well as I've been able to:
Most attempts to describe the mind entirely as an emergent quality of the brain, or as another name for the brain’s machinery, not only fail convincingly to bridge the qualitative distance between sensory impression and coherent thought, but invariably bracket out of consideration a great deal of what any scrupulous phenomenology of consciousness reveals. Certainly they do not seem to explain the “transcendental” conditions by which consciousness is organized: that primordial act within and prior to all our other acts of mind and will; that constant mediation between thought and world that we both perform and suffer in advance of all experience or volition.

Consciousness has not been explained until one can provide a comprehensive picture of how the mind not only “fits” the world, but also “intends” and “constitutes” it as an intelligible phenomenon. And that is not the straightforward mechanical problem it is often mistaken for.

But these are matters that have been tormenting philosophers and cognitive scientists for decades, and they will not be resolved by any arguments or any science currently at our command. And, anyway, even if humanity should some day penetrate the ordinary mysteries of consciousness, the more extraordinary mysteries will probably remain, and continue to urge human beings to think in terms not only of the mind, but of the soul.
I think this is basically right. The conclusion we should come to isn't, of course, the Cartesian-Thomist superstition that there is some substantial thing which exists outside the emergent properties of the brain. I'm not advocating some fall into metaphysicalism. But I think that Hart is right that pure materialism doesn't quite explain what it's setting out to, either.

What is necessary is an enactment of a synthesis between empiricist truths and phenomenological ones.

Frederick Coppleston writes in his multivolume history of philosophy about how Immanuel Kant took it to be "a necessary condition for the possibility of experience that I think should be capable of accomodating all one's representations." Yet we must take into account the exact nature of the type of necessity that is operative. It is not, of course, a physical necessity. Instead it seems to be a truth about logic--about language, about the way in which we think. Coppleson goes on to say that it "is purely as a logical subject that the transcendental ego is then a necessary condition of experience. This is the case because "experience is unintelligible unless objects, to be objects, must be related to the unity of apperception."

However, "we cannot argue to the existence of the transcendental ego [. . .]. Scientific knowledge is bounded by the the world of phenonmena, but the transcendental ego does not belong to the world; it is a limiting concept."

Coppleston himself notes the affinity between this account of the rational subject and that given in Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein expands on the Kantian notion of self as a limiting concept in the Tractatus, but grounds it in a framework which is mystical rather than emergent.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The other day, I posted the following as my status update on Facebook:
Cole J. Banning thinks that Thomistic soteriology's proto-Cartesian rational psychology is philosophically untenable due to its implicit metaphysical realism. Anyone know of any contemporary Christian soteriologies which do a better job?
Now, I was mostly putting forth as a joke because I recognized that it reads like unintelligible gobbledygook. But, at the same time, it is also something that I believe to be true, and I was (and am) open for recommendations.

For those who would like a lexicon to translate:
Thomistic = according to the theology/philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
soteriology = the branch of theology which deals with the soul and salvation
proto-Cartesian = anticipating the philosophy of René  Descartes, who is famous for the credo "I think, therefore I am" and who posited the self as a substantial entity
rational psychology = metaphysical discipline which uses a priori reasoning to determine the nature of the soul
metaphysical realism = the metaphysical doctrine which asserts that truth can transcend the possibility of verification due to the existence of objects, properties and relations which the world contains and which are independent of our thoughts about them or our perceptions of them (e.g., Platonic "forms") (definition reworked from this article)

In short, the Thomistic account of the soul is as a substance (although further reading has led me to suspect this loses some of the true subtlety of Thomistic philosophy, and that a detailed reading of the Summa contra Gentiles is in order), slightly more holistic in its character than the Cartesian cogito but no less an existent metaphysical entity. It's this thing that I have (which has itself?--it is I). Obviously this understanding of the self as a thing still enjoys broad popular support, but it has been the subject of grave philosophical objections since Hume. (The soul as a thing to be posessed apart from the self also has some popular support--cf., e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its account of the soul as something which can be lost or regained).

Both Kant and Wittgenstein deal with this problem by understanding the subject-ego as a limiting concept, belonging not to reality but instead being a limit of reality.* This tends to be my own position. I'm not sure what the implications for soteriology ultimately are, however: what does it mean for a limiting concept to die and go to heaven (or to hell, or to a next life, or to any other conception of an afterlife). It seems we must assert with Wittgenstein that "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death."

Liberal Protestantism tends to interpret our soulfullness largely in terms of our innate dignity which demands justice on the part of society. I like and agree with this perspective, but it doesn't make any more sense for innate dignity to go to heaven than it does for a limiting concept to do so.

I guess I'm principally interested in how Christian soteriologists respond to Humean and post-Humean objections in crafting their account of soulfullness (and the afterlife) without retreating to metaphysical realism: "the soul exists, and is a thing, so there." (A healthy dose of mysticism, as in Wittgenstein, is just fine by me, OTOH--so long as it is not reified into a realism.) I haven't really seen any accounts which do this well. The Episcopal catechism's only mention of the soul is to remind us we're supposed to use it to love God. The contemporary Roman catechism's description of the soul is admirably holistic but troublingly vague. (I perform a fuller and deeper survey of conventional Roman Catholic tradition and understandings of the soul in my previous post, The Nature of the Soul: Synthesizing Tradition and Reason: Soul as Metaphysical.) Even Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1 which has been a tremendous resource for me in explaining many points of theology (and the debates over them) in much fuller detail than I had previously understood them, has provided absolutely no account of what a soul actually is. (I'm only partially through Vol. 2, but so far neither has it.)

So my primary question is: what is a soul, and why should I care what happens to mine? (Note that the answer is not particularly central to my life as a Christian; I'm a Christian because Christ has reavealed Christself to me as Lord, and not to get into heaven.)

To lay my cards on the table: I think our own subjecthood, our unity of apperception, the fact that we experience ourselves as selves, is a subject of the deepest mysticism, which means so too will have to be the question of life after death. It's not that the afterlife does or doesn't exist, exactly, it's that our attempt to ask the question of what happens to us after we die necessarily falls into the nonsense of metaphysics, trying to put into words what cannot be said, but only shown.


*Wittgenstein actually uses "the world" instead of "reality," but this shouldn't be confused with the (deeply problematic) use of "the world" by many Christians to refer to "the satanic system which is hostile to God." Wittgenstein uses "the world" (die Welt) to mean "all that is the case" (alles, was der Fall ist). He actually uses "reality"  (Realitat) to mean something subtly different, but that's not particularly germane to our needs here.

On Atonement

Thursday, 15 April 2010 03:37 pm
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.522)
In Wittgensteinian terms, nonsense (unsinnig) is the mechanism by which (so to speak) God reconciles the world to Godself. For the Christian, the inescapable conclusion from this is that the Cross is an event which is, at its heart, fundamentally nonsensical: the primordial mysterium fidei.

If Wittgenstein is correct, the Cross was required for the world's redemption not because of God's bloodthirsty demand for a sacrifice but because of the transcendence of the very bounds of sense which the Cross represents: the death of the immortal, ever-living God; the helplessness of the omnipotent Ruler of the Universe while undergoing cruel torture; the questioning cry from the omniscient Overseer.
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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

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