Love of All Wisdom

The problems with ineffable ethics

by on Mar.04, 2012, under Confucianism, Epistemology, Foundations of Ethics, German Tradition, Politics

I think it’s fair to say that in my recent post on Wittgenstein and Heidegger, I got Wittgenstein wrong. (And one of the things I love about doing philosophy as a blogger is the ability to be wrong in writing, and then simply retract it. If one is seeking an academic career as a philosopher, that sort of thing could easily bring said career to an ignominious end. Here, I can simply offer my apologies and move on with a revised position.)

I characterized Wittgenstein there as having “an indifference to ethics and concerns about the good life…” Given the concerns that occupy the bulk of his writing, it’s very easy to get that impression; compared to his voluminous prose about epistemology and philosophy of language, the amount of published or unpublished writing that he devotes to ethics and the good life is almost negligible.

But as several respondents to the post pointed out – both in the comments and in private emails – it’s really not fair to characterize that lack of ink as indifference. (And though I am by no means well versed in Wittgenstein’s thought, I did know enough about him that I should have remembered that.) The things Wittgenstein said about ethics were certainly limited; but they did exist. And those relatively few remarks tell us in his own words why he said so little.

Thill quotes an important letter that Wittgenstein wrote to Norman Malcolm:

You see, I know that it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other peoples lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.-Let me stop preaching. (quoted from p.35 of Malcolm’s memoir)

This is hardly an expression of indifference. But it does raise the question: if it’s so important, why did Wittgenstein say so little about it? He points out that it’s very difficult, but he didn’t let that stop him on other matters. The key here, I suspect, is in the “if possible” – it seems likely to me that Wittgenstein thought it wasn’t really possible to think about the good life, at least in our usual discursive, linguistic sense of thinking.

Wittgenstein famously ends the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – at 75 pages the longest work published in his lifetime – with the German phrase Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. The book is divided into seven sections, and the last one consists solely of this phrase, which is also repeated near the preface to the book with one change (the word sprechen is replaced with reden, which both mean “speak” though the connotations may be different). The Sanskritic grammar of this phrase requires that any accurate English rendering will be at least somewhat awkward, but the meaning comes across: “What one cannot speak about, one must remain silent about.” As far as I can tell – and do correct me if I’m wrong again – in Wittgenstein’s view, ethics and the good life fall almost entirely under this category of wovon man nicht sprechen kann, and that is why Wittgenstein remained mostly silent about them.

If this is the case, some further implications follow. For my own part, if such an interpretation is correct I would become still less sympathetically predisposed to Wittgenstein. (I really am hoping one of these days to hear something from Wittgenstein that I actually find valuable or profound. I do think it’s there, but I haven’t found it yet.) If one claims, as Wittgenstein seems to, that ethics is ineffable, the inevitable conclusion seems to me a drastic conservatism. And by this I do not mean the political literal conservatism I have previously praised, which rests largely on pragmatic grounds about the observed harmful effects of revolution. Rather, the ineffability of ethics leads us to a deeper and more harmful conservatism, one that preserves everything intact in both individual lives and the larger social order.

For without language, there can be very little reasoning – only the rudimentary kind of reasoning engaged in by dogs who figure out how to climb up onto the kitchen counter, which some might argue isn’t reason at all. And without reasoning, there can be no criticism. Individual desires and passions are left just the way they are, as they are with dogs; you can use stimulus, reward and punishment to change a dog’s behaviour, but you can’t convince it that it should stop engaging in self-destructive acts. Without reasoning there is no room for the kind of searching reflection that changed my life in Thailand.

A Wittgensteinian might, I suppose, argue that such changes in belief are only apparent; that the changes don’t really occur at the level of reason and language. In his comment, Ethan Mills mentions Wittgensteinians of his acquaintance who, speaking of Ethan’s turn to atheism, “told me that if I had REALLY believed, this wouldn’t have happened. What happened to me is that I simply REALIZED that I never really believed in the first place. Upon reflection, this seems closer to my experience.” But at least two replies to this are in order. First, that’s not at all what happened to me; I passionately believed in a utilitarian political life for a long time, and did not abandon that view until serious reflection happened otherwise. The idea that “you wouldn’t have changed your beliefs if you really believed” does, of course, raise the idea of tautology. And I suspect that may not be a very Wittgensteinian reply in the first place; on my understanding, Wittgenstein sharply criticized the idea of implicit beliefs (“I don’t have a belief that the world will not end five minutes from now.”)

It is also easy to see how the idea of ineffable ethics could lead to the intellectual bullying that J.M. Keynes witnessed in Wittgenstein’s colleague G.E. Moore. Without reason, social hierarchies are maintained based on raw power and force, not justice; it is the world Plato rightly warns us against in the first book of the Republic, which makes no room for the criticisms of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. A world in which we cannot speak about the good is a bleak world indeed, one which might well not be worth living in.

An additional implication of such an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views: the symbiosis with early Chinese thought that I discussed at the end of the earlier post becomes less plausible. True, Confucians at least similarly tend to be conservative and preserve existing views about ethics; but that is something they make an explicit case for, in the way that Wittgenstein says we cannot do. I think the earlier post hinted at the possibility of a division of labour, in which Confucians could supply the reflection on ethics that Wittgenstein neglected but that was compatible with him. But on this interpretation, Wittgenstein would have actively ruled such reflection out – even in the aphoristic mode of Confucius, let alone the more detailed arguments of Mencius and Xunzi — or Mozi or Zhuangzi. (Heidegger might be a different story. Maybe.)

I got Wittgenstein wrong before, so I’m not going to put much stock on this interpretation of him. If he did not believe ethics was ineffable, I’d be happy to know that. If so, I’d still be happy to have said many of the things above, as a response to other people who do make that claim.


I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks. I expect new posts will begin again on 18 March.

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33 Comments for this entry

  • Thill

    This one, and its predecessor, are interesting (to me) and thought-provocative posts on Wittgenstein, if only by way of offering misconceptions or misunderstandings to be examined, and, hopefully, dispelled.

    “one of the things I love about doing philosophy as a blogger is the ability to be wrong in writing, and then simply retract it. If one is seeking an academic career as a philosopher, that sort of thing could easily bring said career to an ignominious end.”

    How I fervently wish the last sentence were true! LOL

    Now, to Wittgenstein and the ethical.

    I would like to respond to Amod’s post in stages by way of a series of comments.

    At first, I would like to offer some examples of Wittgenstein’s exquisite moral sensitivity and austere moral judgment. Later, I will attempt an interpretation of his stance on the ethical.

    Here are a few examples of W’s moral sensitivity and austere moral judgment drawn from O. K. Bouwsma’s memoir “Wittgenstein: Conversations 1949 – 1951″:

    1. “Then he told me about his visit to New York in 1939. The people were awful. Only one person he liked, an Italian boy in Central Park who shined his shoes twice. The boy hoped someday to shine shoes at a better location. He was genuine. W. paid double for his shine.” (p. 74)

    2. “On the last day just before he left he took a taxi to see a doctor in New Jersey. Going through the tunnel the taxi driver shut off the fare meter. It stood at four dollars and W. saw it. The taxi driver stopped just beyond the tunnel and told W. the fare was seven dollars.

    W. got out undecided. Then he went up to a policeman standing by and told him what had happened. Should he pay?

    The policeman went up, seized the driver by the neck, wrenched him out of the cab, and said to W: Pay him $ 4.50.

    He was glad to get on a boat-Holland-American line- away from America…..” (p. 74) LOL

    3. “Miss Anscombe said that during the war he once returned the money Cambridge paid him for lectures “The lectures were no good. Not worth the money.” They were, of course, better than any others given.” (p. 73)

    4. “How he hated Truman-a new low. “The Sermon on the Mount! Indeed, that crook, that gangster. And telling the journalists to read it! Awful!” (p. 47) LOL

    (To Be Continued)

  • Thill

    More From Malcolm’s Memoir of Wittgenstein:

    5. “Wittgenstein respected Moore’s honesty and seriousness, and once he said that Moore was “deep”…
    Wittgenstein related to me an anecdote about Moore that, he thought, exhibited what was most admirable in Moore’s character.
    Moore had been working hard on his lecture entitled “Proof of an External World”, which he was to deliver before the British Academy in London. He was very dissatisfied with the concluding part of it, but he had not been able to revise it in any way that satisfied him. On the day of his lecture, as he got ready to leave his house in Cambridge to catch the London train, Mrs. Moore said to him “Don’t worry; I’m sure they’ll like it.” To which Moore replied “If they do they’ll be wrong!”
    I believe that this incident reveals that in Moore which Wittgenstein regarded as “deep”.” (p. 56)

    6. “Moore…had suffered a stroke and his doctor had advised that he should not become greatly excited or fatigued. Mrs. Moore enforced this prescription by not allowing Moore to have a philosophical discussion with anyone for longer than one hour and half.
    Wittgenstein was extremely vexed by this regulation. He believed that Moore should not be supervised by his wife. He should discuss as long as he liked.
    If he became very excited or tired and had a stroke and died–well, that would be a decent way to die: with his boots on.
    Wittgenstein felt that it was unseemly that Moore, with his great love for truth, should be forced to break off a discussion before it had reached its proper end.
    I think that Wittgenstein’s reaction to this regulation was very characteristic of his outlook on life. A human being should do the thing for which he has a talent with all of his energy his life long, and should never relax this devotion to his job merely in order to prolong his existence.
    This platonistic attitude was manifested again two years later when Wittgenstein, feeling that he was losing his own talent, questioned whether he should continue to live.” (pp. 56 – 57)

    7. “During the first part of his visit Wittgenstein insisted on helping to wash the dishes after meals, and he was as before very fussy about the amount of soap and hot water that ought to be used and whether there was the right sort of dish mop. Once he rebuked me sternly for not rinsing properly.” (p. 69)

    8. “When the float in toilet tank once failed to function, Wittgenstein took a lively interest in helping me repair it…At Trinity College, Wittgenstein had taken me to look at one of the toilets in order to inspect its sturdy construction, and now he commented unfavourably on the construction of ours.
    He always had a keen appreciation of sound workmanship and a genuinely moral disapproval of the flimsy or slipshod. He liked to think that there might be craftsmen who would insist on doing their jobs to perfection, and for no reason other than that that was the way it ought to be.” (pp. 69 – 70)

    (To Be Continued)

  • Ethan Mills

    I may have been recalling things somewhat incorrectly when I attributed the idea of religious “beliefs” to the Wittgensteinian in question. As Amod points out, Wittgenstein does criticize the idea of tacit beliefs. I think that’s because he thinks of things like alleged “beliefs” about the external world and religious phenomena to be more like attitudes or grounding behaviors than explicit, testable, empirical beliefs – to try to test those “beliefs” is simply to play the wrong language game. Wittgensteinian philosophers of religion make the move that the meaning of religious beliefs should be understood entirely in terms of actions and practices. I suppose this fits the idea of being a “practicing Jew” or “practicing Catholic” or whatever, but it seems to me that it fails to capture the fact that most religious people are, for lack of a better term, realists about the objects of their beliefs. It seems to me that the turn to anti-realist or Wittgensteinian ideas only comes after someone gives up on explicit arguments. If I were a little more cynical, I’d say it’s what happens when smart people realize they have no good reason to believe, but want to believe anyway.

    As for my anecdote, what made sense about it for me at the time is that I had been questioning my religious upbringing for years before I finally gave it up. It felt more like I was realizing something about myself because it was a gradual process. But I probably really did believe in Christianity through much of my childhood, and I gradually came to change my mind by reflecting on various considerations, including my teenage brain’s version of the problem of evil. Nonetheless, there is some deeper sense of “faith” that many religious people seem to have that I’m not sure I’ve ever understood. I might have to track down that Wittgensteinian and that Kierkegaardian to continue the conversation…

  • michael reidy

    I would imagine that there was scarcely a topic that Wittgenstein did not have a view on. Check out

    the collection of notes on Culture and Value. He also was an immensely practical person. He

    designed a large house for his sister right down to the latches on the windows. Ray Monk’s

    biography is very good. Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haus_Wittgenstein
    Some laughs in that entry. L.W. was not an easy man. Certainly not silent.

  • Thill

    I met Ray Monk years ago in Canada when he gave a talk at the department in which I was a PhD candidate. All I can recall now was that I asked him a question, he hesitated in answering, and didn’t look very pleased! I did have a short discussion with him later at a reception after the talk.

    I now prefer the memoirs of W. written by Malcolm and Bouwsma. Monk’s book contains some glib claims and inconsistencies on W.

    I read again a few chapters from his book last night and got the same impression, particularly after browsing through the memoirs by Malcolm and Bouwsma, works I’ve read several times over the years.

  • Thill

    Wittgenstein had no religious faith. He is on record stating that he couldn’t possibly bring himself to believe in the things his Catholic friends and students believed in. He is also on record stating that he did not understand some central claims of theism.

    I think that what W. admired most in a person or way of life were the moral qualities exhibited by that person or nurtured by that way of life. He seems to have put courage and kindness on top of the list here.

    It’s easy to misunderstand W’s respect for some religious beliefs and practices. He is expressing respect for the moral qualities nurtured by or exhibited in those practices and is not affirming the (non-moral) content of those beliefs and practices independently of the moral qualities they help cultivate.

  • Thill

    I strongly suspect that Wittgenstein believed that authentic religiousness always takes the forms of authentic moral attitudes and conduct. Hence, his suggestion that immorality in the context of religion must really spring from irreligiousness.

    This raises the important question: What is the relation between religiousness and moral attitudes and conduct? Of course, we need to first clearly understand the terms “religious” and “moral” in order to answer this question.

    How do we account for fanaticism, intolerance, group bigotry, religious hatred or the odium theologicum, etc., in terms of W.’s (uncritical) belief concerning the relation between the religious and the moral life?

    W.’s position would lead him to maintain (implausibly?) that the Inquisition and other forms of religious violence and persecution are the products of irreligiousness.

    Or is W. actually identifying what is significant in religion with the moral or ethical attitudes and conduct?

    If so, since an identity relation goes both ways, he would be required to view any moral or ethical attitude or conduct as a significantly religious attitude or conduct.

    An atheist could be a moral person. But it would not make sense to say that he or she is a religious person on this ground.

    Or, are we to construe W. as holding that the test of the meaning, value, and power of a religious belief consists in its ability to morally transform, for the better, the character, attitudes, and conduct of the person holding that belief?

    Perhaps, this is the best interpretation of W.’s view of the relation between the religious and the ethical.

    I will continue with the anecdotes illustrating W.’s moral character tomorrow. Reminiscences of W. by F.R. Leavis (the acute British literary critic) and his Russian teacher Fania Pascal offer interesting insights into W.’s fearsome moral intensity.

    • JimWilton

      I think it is possible to have the view that true religious belief requires moral or ethical integrity without having the view that moral or ethical integrity is essentially religious.

      I agree that defining the terms is the most difficult part of the exercise. To my mind, morals or ethics implies a rules based approach. I have my doubts about how central a rules based approach is to spirituality. In terms of religion and for similar reasons, I question whether belief is necessary for religion or spirituality. If one is truly in touch with god, or the ineffable, or whatever word is applied to what is central to spiritual experience, would belief be necessary? — or would it be entirely superfluous in the way that believing that the sun is shining is unnecessary and somewhat silly?

      Religion, of course, could be defined narrowly as the institution created that is charged with passing on a spititual tradition. In that case, the beliefs and dogma of the institution are likely integral to the concept of religion.

      Incidentally, I have enjoyed the anecdotes about Wittgenstein. I seems to have been a very interesting man. I wonder if he had much of a sense of humor?

      • Thill

        “I wonder if he had much of a sense of humor?”

        Yes, contrary to expectations, he did. In fact, he wrote that you could write a good book on philosophy which consisted only of jokes!

        A man without a sense of humor could not have written that!

  • Thill

    How can we make sense of W’s claim that in denying that he believes in the Last Judgment, he is not necessarily contradicting someone who believes in it?

    It seems to me that we can make sense of these sorts of claims made by W. only in terms of ascribing to him the view that religious beliefs are not claims about reality, but express moral attitudes, evaluations or value judgments, and prescriptions or “rules of life”.

    Thus, on W.’s account, a person who believes that God created the world is actually adopting certain moral attitudes, evaluations or value judgments, and prescriptions on how to relate to the world, rather than affirming any claims about how things are in reality.

    The meaning of a religious judgment is its role in forming and leading to the adoption of certain moral attitudes or dispositions, evaluations or value judgments, and prescriptions?

    I think W would see this thesis as a descriptive claim about the meaning of religious belief.

    If it is a descriptive claim, then we can examine whether it is true or false.

    What would show W.’s thesis to be true?

    If we find that religious believers are seldom moved by presentations of evidence to the contrary or counterarguments, then would this show that W. is on the right track with his thesis?

    What would show W’s thesis to be false?

    That religious believers are constantly processing facts, like the purveyors of any claims about how things are, to “confirm” their beliefs?

    But then they would also be revising or rejecting their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence?

    Certainly, we should not expect them to be indifferent to facts relevant to their beliefs?

    How is all this relevant to Amod’s post?

    If W. is maintaining the thesis I ascribe to him (The meaning of a religious judgment is its role in forming and leading to the adoption of certain moral attitudes or dispositions, evaluations or value judgments, and prescriptions), then he is reducing religious belief to the ethical.

    And this, I think, shows that the ethical occupies a central place in his outlook and thought.

  • Thill

    “If W. is maintaining the thesis I ascribe to him (The meaning of a religious judgment is its role in forming and leading to the adoption of certain moral attitudes or dispositions, evaluations or value judgments, and prescriptions), then he is reducing religious belief to the ethical.”

    Well, on second thought, regardless of whether he is actually reducing religious belief to the ethical (moral attitudes, evaluations, and prescriptions) or only espousing a moral-functionalist view of religious belief, the central place occupied by the ethical in his outlook, thought, and life is evident.

  • Thill

    “The meaning of a religious judgment is its role in forming and leading to the adoption of certain moral attitudes or dispositions, evaluations or value judgments, and prescriptions.”

    Do all religious beliefs or judgments have a moral function?

    What if a religious belief or judgment has no discernible moral function?

    On W.’s account, should we then say that this religious belief or judgment is meaningless or pointless?

    What is the moral function of the belief in the trinity of Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost?

    What is the moral function of the belief that ultimately reality is Sunyata or “Void”?

    What is the moral function of the belief that the Atman is Brahman?

    What sort of moral attitudes, evaluations, or prescriptions do these beliefs help to form or lead to? How?

    • Ethan Mills

      “What is the moral function of the belief that ultimately reality is Sunyata or “Void”?
      What is the moral function of the belief that the Atman is Brahman?”

      I doubt a Wittgensteinian reduction of religion to moral functions can really describe all religion. I’m not sure that was ever his view – it sounds far too essentialist, although I started reading his Lectures on Religious Belief the other day, which are far from clear on this matter. However, I do think *some* expressions of religious belief and behavior could be reduced to moral functions.

      On my skeptical reading of Nāgārjuna, the thesis of universal emptiness is supposed to be self-refuting (as I happen to think it actually is). In refuting itself, it’s supposed to leave a Mādhyamika unattached to any views (even views about emptiness). I’m not advocating this (so please let’s not rehash the same old critiques of skepticism!). I’m just pointing out that this idea could have been used for purely moral (as opposed to theoretical or explanatory) purposes. The trick is that you have to first take it seriously as a real theory for the idea to serve its moral function later.

      Likewise, I imagine the Upaniṣadic identification of ātman and brahman might serve the purpose of making a religious adherent less attached or worried about the vicissitudes of mundane life. They might even enjoy a sort of bliss (ānanda). Once you have that experience, developing realist or idealist theories about brahman may seem quite quaint (as I suspect it did to the Advaitin Śrī Harṣa – although I’m familiar enough with him to say).

      These are just my conjectures about how at least two apparently strange religious views could possibly serve purely moral functions.

  • Thill

    Or would W. deem these beliefs examples of metaphysical or theological doctrines rather than the everyday religious beliefs of ordinary folk?

  • Thill

    1. “I doubt a Wittgensteinian reduction of religion to moral functions can really describe all religion. I’m not sure that was ever his view – it sounds far too essentialist”.

    You may be right. I’ve had the same nagging doubt. There are occasions in which W. dismissed talk of “religion” and asked “Which religious belief?” or something to that effect (I think in a conversation recounted by Bouwsma).

    On the other hand, he does use the terms “religion and “religious belief”, not that this use necessarily implies essentialism.

    For instance, in his famous “Lecture on Ethics” (a required reading for understanding W. ideas on ethics) he says “I want to impress on you that a certain characteristic misuse of our language runs through ALL ethical and religious expressions.”

    I will return to this remarkable talk later, but I want to also point out for now that the lecture is not concerned only with advancing this thesis (which is really on the confusions stemming from taking analogies or allegories or similes literally in religion and ethics) about the peculiar nature of the language of religion and ethics.

    2. “On my skeptical reading of Nāgārjuna, the thesis of universal emptiness is supposed to be self-refuting (as I happen to think it actually is). In refuting itself, it’s supposed to leave a Mādhyamika unattached to any views (even views about emptiness)”

    If it is self-refuting, then it does not succeed in “refuting” contradicting views, e.g., essentialism. So, all that follows from the fact that it is self-refuting is that it would be irrational to be “attached” to it.

    Could one be attached to the notion that one should not be attached to any view?

    If “attachment” or “non-attachment” are also “empty”, as they must be, what sense does it make to invoke them as though they were discernible qualities or properties?

    • Ethan Mills

      One way to interpret the text (although who knows what Nāgārjuna was really saying!) is to think that the first step is to argue for universal emptiness, which negates all other views. The second step is then to notice that it also negates itself. It’s important that you don’t jump right to the second step, because then you wouldn’t get started. I suspect a skeptical Mādhyamika undergoing this process would have their whole mental life transformed to such an extent that they’d come to a mental state wherein philosophical puzzles about attachment, emptiness, etc. simply wouldn’t arise for them. Getting back to Wittgenstein, this is somewhat like the peace he describes that happens when you stop doing philosophy.

      I don’t think I have what it takes to do this all the time (most people don’t), but I can see the appeal given the mental disturbance and excessive attachment that can be created by doing philosophy.

      But anyway, there are probably less controversial senses in which religious beliefs can have moral functions. Maybe just trying to follow Jesus or the Buddha as moral exemplars is enough (although it’s not clear you have to have any supernatural beliefs about these two figures to do that).

      • Thill

        “to argue for universal emptiness”

        One would like to know what this means, if anything at all.

        Anyway, Wittgenstein’s remarks on ethics gives plenty of food for thought for now, and, perhaps, for an entire lifetime.

      • Thill

        “Getting back to Wittgenstein, this is somewhat like the peace he describes that happens when you stop doing philosophy.”

        It is important to prevent a misunderstanding in this context, the misunderstanding that W. wanted to stop “doing philosophy” or that he thought that there was something wrong with “doing philosophy”.

        W. was “doing philosophy” to the very end of his life. His practice offers an eloquent testimony to the importance and value he attached to “doing philosophy”.

        M.O’C. Drury (in Recollections of Wittgenstein) offers the following recollection of a conversation with W. in 1936:

        “When we were out walking a few days later, Wittgenstein began to talk to me about Lessing.

        He quoted with great emphasis Lessing’s remark: “If God held closed in his right hand all truth, and in his left the single and untiring striving after truth, adding even that I always and forever make mistakes, and said to me: Choose! I should fall humbly before his left hand and say: Father grant me! the pure truth is for you alone.”

        I think W. would have made the same choice. He certainly lived as though he had already made that choice.

      • Thill

        “the first step is to argue for universal emptiness, which negates all other views. The second step is then to notice that it also negates itself.”

        It’s a curious edict that this must be “noticed” only as a “second step”.

        Nothing prevents me from noticing first off that it is self-refuting and that, therefore, it cannot possibly “negate all other views”! LOL

        Silence would be the best expression of “universal emptiness”!

        If only the Madhyamika would “notice” this truth! LOL

  • Thill

    Bouwsma (Wittgenstein: Conversations 1949 – 1951):
    “As we walked, he said that if there was something I should I like to talk about I should bring it up. I suggested that some professor was to lecture on: the nature of religious truth–what would he say?
    Religious truth? He went on puzzling, thinking his way. Of course, it isn’t botany, it isn’t anything about eclipses, it isn’t economics or history. That is clear enough.
    Negatively it is easy to say something. But what is one to say besides that?
    The man in Christ Church will likely talk about Christian dogmas.
    And one might make some sense in this way, each believer talking about what he believes.
    But there is no sense talking about religious truth in general.
    What religious? What truth?” (p. 54)

    “A peculiarity of religious beliefs is the great power they have over men’s lives.
    (Not lehrt uns beten.) (Misery teaches us to pray.) (p. 56)

  • Thill

    “I doubt a Wittgensteinian reduction of religion to moral functions can really describe all religion. I’m not sure that was ever his view – it sounds far too essentialist”.

    But then almost all of the contexts in which he discusses religious belief in general, or specific Christian beliefs, invoke the moral attitudes, evaluations, and prescriptions which go with these beliefs.

    Why would he do that unless he thought that there was some intrinsic connection religious belief and those moral attitudes, evaluations, and prescriptions?

  • Thill

    Is attachment or detachment a moral attitude? Do they express or embody a moral evaluation of their objects? (One can only be attached to or detached from something. There is no such thing as attachment or detachment per se.)

    If so, what is the moral evaluation they express or embody?

  • Thill

    I think it is important to distinguish between theological doctrines or justifications of religious beliefs and those religious beliefs in the context of everyday practice.

    W. didn’t think much of theology (he was dismissive of Newman, Barth, etc, and wrote in Culture and Value that “If Christianity is the truth then all the philosophy that is written about it is false”!) but had great respect for sincerely held religious beliefs.

    Again, a perusal of his remarks on religious beliefs shows very clearly his emphasis on and admiration for the moral attitudes, dispositions, evaluations, conduct they help foster.

    In fact, he frequently translates religious utterances into “moralese” or moral terms.

    Now, my question here is: Does religious belief only foster morally praiseworthy attitudes, dispositions, evaluations, conduct, etc?

    How would W. respond to examples of religious beliefs which foster morally reprehensible attitudes, dispositions, evaluations, conduct, etc?

    And is W. assuming that religious beliefs have, in some mysterious way, a causal power to foster morally praiseworthy attitudes than morally reprehensible ones?

    How does this causal power actually work?

    Any form of functionalism entails an account of the causal processes which enable the fulfillment of the function (e.g., the structure of the heart helps it to be the locus of causal processes resulting in the pumping of blood to the body).

    So, who how do religious beliefs fulfill their function of fostering morally praiseworthy attitudes, conduct, etc?

  • Thill

    W. also relates religious beliefs to certain aspects of the human condition or states of the human “soul” or heart: loneliness, despair, the feeling of being safe no matter what happens, etc.

    Perhaps, then, it would be correct to add that he also acknowledged the therapeutic functions of religious beliefs, e.g., prayer in the face of misery or despair.

  • Thill

    Amod: “in Wittgenstein’s view, ethics and the good life fall almost entirely under this category of wovon man nicht sprechen kann, and that is why Wittgenstein remained mostly silent about them.”

    1. W. certainly did not remain “mostly silent” on matters of ethical judgment.

    2. Serious reflection and talk on ethics need not necessarily take the form of propounding some grand and grandiose ethical theory or system of ethics.

    A thinker may well focus on particular moral problems, particular puzzles about moral concepts or uses of moral language, particular lives, individual moral character, specific moral attitudes and actions. I think this was W.’s style of approach to ethics.

    2. In 1929 (when he was 40) W. wrote in a notebook:

    “What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics. Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.” (Culture and Value)

    “The good is outside the space of facts.”

    It is clear that at this stage in his life and thought, he had a “mystical” conception of the ethical or good: it is divine, supernatural, and “outside the space of facts” or transcendent.

    This implies that there is no way of completely and satisfactorily explaining by means of language and empirical or naturalistic inquiry the basis or foundation and the nature of the ethical.

    On W.’s account, there are no “proofs” which can persuade us to be ethical.

    And there cannot be any complete empirical or naturalistic explanations of why we are the sorts of beings who take the ethical seriously at one level or the other and in varying degrees. (???)

    2. W.’s notion of showing something by a gesture, expression, or action, and his great emphasis on correct description of the particular and real-life contexts of ethical problems or judgments as a vehicle of understanding ethics are of crucial importance.

    In On Certainty, he points out that our actions express our certainty or knowledge that there is a door or wall over there, etc.

    Thus, we can certainly show the ethical or the good in our actions, commitments, and lives.

    3. Bouwsma’s memoir mentions some discussions on ethics W. led or participated in. He mentions one which took place in July 1949 which lends support to my “interpretation” that for W. proof and argument are not the engines of ethics:

    “What would you do with: Everyone ought to be honest?

    …..You certainly could not prove any such statements.

    Here talk was begun by W. about the two tribes, he being a reformer to one and Malcolm being reformer to the other.

    Each now would have a different morality, and each might be immoral to the other.

    There might now be said to be different moral principles, but one can see in the way in which they come to be held that argument and proof have nothing to do with it.

    …The point was that one can exhibit the sort of thing one has in mind, and that is all.

    Solomon said: The love of money is the root of evil….How do statements like these have any meaning?

    W. said that they did not, apart from context…He made such remarks as that some people are interested in a system, other are interested in preaching.

    He makes the distinction clear between something up in the air–using his hands–the talk of philosophers, and now someone saying: Don’t be revengeful; let not the sun go down on thy wrath, etc.

    This is the distinction between nonsense and exhortation.”

    LOL

    More later.

  • Thill

    “for W. proof and argument are not the engines of ethics”

    Perhaps, W. is right.

    Indeed, I’ve often wondered whether moral conduct owes anything to argument about moral values and principles.

    Such argument, it can be noticed first off, has very little capacity to motivate moral conduct.

    For instance, how many non-vegetarians have turned to vegetarianism merely by the force of arguments in favor of vegetarianism?

    Upbringing, the influence of exemplar vegetarians, and encounters with animal suffering in the slaughterhouse have achieved more in this context than any philosophical argument.

  • Thill

    I think a good case could be made for the “interpretation” that W.’s conception of philosophy itself was laden with moral elements, that he viewed “doing philosophy”, ideally, as some sort of a moral enterprise, an activity which ought to be expressive of moral values such as courage, honesty, and goodwill.

    Here is his foreword (written in 1930) to his posthumously published work “Philosophical Remarks”:

    “I would like to say “This book is written to the glory of God”, but nowadays that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood.

    It means the book is written in good will, and in so far as it is not so written, but out of vanity, etc., the author would wish to see it condemned.

    He cannot free it of these impurities further than he himself is free of them.”

    This also helps us to understand the full import of W.’s famous reply to Russell’s rather flippant question to him once as W. paced back and forth in the former’s rooms after midnight at Cambridge like a “caged tiger”:

    “Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about your sins?”

    Russell says that that Wittgenstein replied “Both” and then “reverted to silence.”

    Intellectual clarity and purity, for Wittgenstein, was an expression of moral clarity and purity.

    Hence, his remark in his foreword to “Philosophical Remarks” that he cannot free his intellectual or philosophical work of impurities “further than he himself is free of them”.

  • Thill

    “Intellectual clarity and purity, for Wittgenstein, was an expression of moral clarity and purity.”

    I think the point is better expressed as follows:

    To achieve his ideal of intellectual clarity and purity, W. thought that it was necessary to first achieve moral clarity and purity.

  • Thill

    Did W. ever address a specific moral problem? If so, what was his approach?

    Rush Rhees (1905-1989) provides some useful information here.

    Rush Rhees was at first a student and later a close friend of Wittgenstein. Moore is said to have described him as his “ablest student”.

    Apparently, Rhees was thrown out of the University of Rochester in 1922 for asking “insolent questions”!!!LOL He later studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge.

    In his important article on “Some developments in Wittgenstein’s View of Ethics”, Rhees recounts the following comments based on some notes he made a few hours after talking to W. about it:

    “I suggested the problem facing a man who has come to the conclusion that he must either leave his wife or abandon his work of cancer research.

    “Thanks,” said Wittgenstein, “Let’s discuss this.

    “Such a man’s attitude will vary at different times.

    Suppose I am his friend and I say to him , “Look, you’ve taken this girl out of her home, and now, by God, you’ve got to stick to her.”

    This would be called taking up an ethical attitude.

    He may reply, “But what of suffering humanity? how can I abandon my research?”

    In saying this he may be making it easy for himself: he wants to carry on that work anyway. (I may have reminded him that there are others who can carry it on if he gives up.)

    And he may be inclined to view the effect on his wife relatively easily: “It probably won’t be fatal for her. She’ll get over it, probably marry again” and so on.

    On the other hand it may not be this way. It may be that he has a deep love for her. And yet he may think that if he were to give up his work he would be no husband for her.That is his life, and if he gives that up he will drag her down.

    Here we may say that we have all the materials of a tragedy; and we could only say: “Well, God help you.”

    “Whatever he finally does, the way things then turn out may affect his attitude. He may say, “Well, thank God I left her: it was better all around” Or maybe, “Thanks God I stuck to her.” Or he may not be able to say “thank God” at all, but just the opposite.

    “I want to say that this is the solution of an ethical problem.

    “Or rather: it is so with regard to the man who does not have an ethics.

    If he has, say, the Christian ethics, then he may say it is absolutely clear: he has got to stick to her come what may. And then his problem is different. It is: how to make the best of this situation, what he should do in order to be a decent husband in these greatly altered circumstances, and so forth. The question “Should I leave her or not?” is not a problem here.

    “Someone might ask whether the treatment of such a question in Christian ethics is right or not. I want to say that this question does not make sense.

    The man who asks it might say: “suppose I view his problem with a different ethics—perhaps Nietzsche’s—-and I say “No, it is not clear that he must stick to her; on the contrary….and so forth.” Surely one of the two answers must be the right one. It must be possible to decide which of them is right and which is wrong.”

    “But we do not know what this decision would be like—how it would be determined, what sort of criteria would be used, and so on. Compare saying that it must be possible to decide which of two standards of accuracy is the right one. We do not even know what a person who asks this question is after.”

    He came back to this question of “the right ethics” later. He did so once (in 1945)when he was discussing the relations of ethics and psychology and sociology.

    “People have had the notion of an ethical theory—the idea of finding the true nature of goodness or of duty. Plato wanted to do this—-to set ethical inquiry in the direction of finding the true nature of goodness—so as to achieve objectivity and avoid relativity.

    “….Or suppose someone says, “One of the ethical systems must be the right one—or nearer to the right one.” Well, suppose I say Christian ethics is the right one. Then I am making a judgment of value. It amounts to adopting Christian ethics. It is not like saying one of these physical theories must be the right one. The way in which some reality corresponds—or conflicts—with a physical theory has no counterpart here.

    “If you say there are various systems of ethics you are not saying they are all equally right. That means nothing. Just as it would have no meaning to say that each was right from his own standpoint. That could only mean that each judges as he does.”

    Rhees goes on to offer his commentary:

    “There is no one system in which you can study in its purity and its essence what ethics is. We use the term “ethics” for a variety of systems, and for philosophy this variety is important.

    Obviously, different ethical systems have points in common. There must be grounds for saying that people who follow a particular system are making ethical judgments; that they regard this or that s good, and so forth.

    But it does not follow that what those people say must be an expression of something more ultimate.

    He used to say that what we might call “the anthropological method” had proved particularly fruitful in philosophy: that is, imagining “a tribe among whom it is carried on this way…..”

    And once when I mentioned Goering’s “Recht is das, was uns gefallt” (Right is whatever we want it to be, or whatever pleases us) Wittgenstein said that:

    “even that is a kind of ethics. It is helpful in silencing objections to a certain attitude. And it should be considered along with other ethical judgments and discussions, in the anthropological study of ethical discussions which we may have to conduct.”

  • Thill

    Here are two other reports, one again from Rhees and another from Bouwsma which shed some light on W.’s views on ethical evaluation:

    Rhees: “He wanted to speak of a problem only where you could imagine or recognize a solution, I think. When I suggested the question whether Brutus’ stabbing Caesar was a noble action (as Plutarch thought) or a particularly evil one (as Dante thought), Wittgenstein said that this was not even something you could discuss. “You would not know for your life what went on in his mind before he decided to kill Caesar. What would he have had to feel in order that you should say that killing his friend was noble?”

    Bouwsma: “Yesterday about noon we went for a ride to Mount Tom Reservation. On the way up he began talking about teaching ethics. Impossible! He regards ethics as telling someone what he should do. But how can anyone counsel another?

    Imagine someone advising another who was in love and about to marry, and pointing out to him all the things he cannot do if he marries. The idiot!

    How can one know how these things are in another man’s life?”

  • Thill

    1. In my view, a life lived well, whatever that means, cannot be solely a function of a serious pursuit of moral integrity.

    On this issue, I part ways with W.

    Strategy, prudence, are also integral to living a good life.

    Contrast, in this context, W.’s (extremist?) moralistic approach with that of a thinker I greatly admire, Bathasar Gracian. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thought highly of Gracian’s work.

    I am not denying that W. was also an aesthete and a remarkable one at that. But even his aestheticism was a curious “Tolstoyan” hybrid form of asceticism and moralism. (W: “Ethics and aesthetics are one.”)

    2. Even God wasn’t spared in W.’s relentlessly moralistic approach. Georg Henrik Von Wright, his student and longtime friend, writes that W. told him that the thought of God, for him, was the thought of the fearful moral judge.

    I recall, in this context, Aurobindo’s perceptive judgment that the “Semites” have “afflicted” humanity with a conception of God predominantly, if not purely, in terms of a punitive and moralistic judge at the expense of aesthetic qualities, inclusive of humor, play, and joy (Ananda)

  • Thill

    “Contrast, in this context, W.’s (extremist?) moralistic approach with that of a thinker I greatly admire, Bathasar Gracian. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thought highly of Gracian’s work.”

    It’s Balthasar Gracian. Sorry for the typo.

  • Thill

    “You see, I know that it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other peoples lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.-Let me stop preaching. (quoted from p.35 of Malcolm’s memoir)

    Amod: “This is hardly an expression of indifference. But it does raise the question: if it’s so important, why did Wittgenstein say so little about it? He points out that it’s very difficult, but he didn’t let that stop him on other matters. The key here, I suspect, is in the “if possible” – it seems likely to me that Wittgenstein thought it wasn’t really possible to think about the good life, at least in our usual discursive, linguistic sense of thinking.”

    “if possible” only expresses a serious doubt as to the feasibility of thinking honestly about one’s life and that of others. It does not imply the impossibility of doing so.

    And why did W. seriously doubt the feasibility of thinking honestly about one’s life and that of others?

    The answer is given in one of his comments in Culture and Value:

    “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.”

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