Wittgenstein’s Religious Philosophy (in light of Pseudo-Denys)


This was one of my term papers for Spring Semester of Yale Divinity School. It’s not the kind of thing I would usually post, but the subject is close to my heart and I was really happy with the paper. So, here it is.


The purpose of this paper is to argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein continues and corrects Pseudo-Denys’ project in The Divine Names. I am first going to argue that The Divine Names should be interpreted as attempting to render human thought transparent to the divine by relativizing our concepts. This fails because the concept of ‘unity’ is not relativized. I will then argue that Wittgenstein does relativize unity in a similar way and for similar religious reasons to Pseudo-Denys. As such, he can be read as continuing and correcting the Pseudo-Dionysian project.

The purpose of this paper is to argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein continues and corrects Pseudo-Denys’ project in The Divine Names. I am first going to argue that The Divine Names should be interpreted as attempting to render human thought transparent to the divine by relativizing our concepts. This fails because the concept of ‘unity’ is not relativized. I will then argue that Wittgenstein does relativize unity in a similar way and for similar religious reasons to Pseudo-Denys. As such, he can be read as continuing and correcting the Pseudo-Dionysian project.

To understand Pseudo-Denys’ explication of the divine names, we must explore his cosmology. He first states that “the existence of everything as beings” derives from “the One, the Good, the Beautiful.”1 These are concepts predicated the divine. Anything predicated of this divinity is predicated of it in its entirety, for “in Scripture all the names appropriate to God are praised regarding the whole … divinity rather than any part of it.”2 ‘The Good’ and ‘the Beautiful’ are as such predicated of one divinity—not just any one, but the One.

Because “all being derives from, exists in, and is returned towards the Beautiful and the Good,”3 moreover, “all things must yearn for … the Beautiful and the Good.”4 Creaturely existence thus derives from and is structured by its desire for union with the One—for “what is signified [by both ‘love’ and ‘yearning’] is a capacity to effect a unity … a particular commingling in the Beautiful and the Good.”5

Pseudo-Denys’ intention, then, is to assist souls seeking union with God.6 But we cannot attain this by our power, for the One is transcendent—we are “surpassed by the infinity beyond being.”7 One consequence of this inability is that when we speak of the One, we must not “resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity that transcends being, apart from what the sacred Scriptures have divinely revealed.”8 This is not because these revealed terms are intrinsically superior, but because Scriptural authors wrote through “‘the power granted by the Spirit,’ a power by which … we reach a union superior”9 to any we can effect. Since “all human thinking is a sort of error when compared with … divine thoughts,”10 however, we cannot apply Scriptural terms to God as to material things. For:

we have a habit of seizing upon what is actually beyond us, clinging to the familiar categories of our sense perceptions, and then we measure the divine by our human standards and, of course, are led astray by the apparent meaning we give to divine and unspeakable reason.11

We must therefore “interpret the things of God in a way that befits God.”12 This means reading Scriptural terms analogically, for “with these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision … [leaving] behind us all our notions of the divine.”13 Our use of divine names must therefore be cast in terms of analogical difference, lest we transpose categories of sense perception into the divine.

It is important to clarify what ‘analogical’ means here. At the risk of reading Pseudo-Denys through an interpreter, I am going to read ‘analogy’ through Thomas Aquinas. Under this account, analogy is not a matter of using a term because two objects share a common feature. Instead, “in things named analogously there is neither one account, as with univocals, nor totally diverse accounts, as with equivocal. Rather, a name said in many ways in this manner signifies diverse proportions to some one thing.”14 To use a name analogically is thus to relativize its meaning in light of its object, without utterly dissolving its unity.15

One example of Pseudo-Denys’ use of analogy is his claiming both that “God is transcendentally, eternally … and invariably the ‘same’”16 and that “‘difference’ too is ascribed to God since he is providentially available to all things and becomes all things in all.”17 Of sameness, he writes God “precontains all opposites in one single, universal cause of sameness.” Of difference, he writes “the many visions of God differ in appearance … [but this indicates] something other than what was outwardly manifested.”18 The meanings of these predicates are relativized in their analogical application to God, dissolving their contradiction.

This analogical use leads to a kind of silence, as our terms’ categorical meanings are reconstituted. When methodically applied to the divine names revealed in Scripture, it forges a path to the thorough apophaticism of The Mystical Theology. This method proceeds on the basis that “the Transcendent is [provisionally] clothed in the terms of being,”19 such that “the union of divinized minds with the Light beyond all deity occurs in the cessation of all intelligent activity.”20 And since we praise Light “most appropriately through the denial of all beings,”21 so too “with a wise silence do we … honor the inexpressible.”22 We do not come to silence through the immediate absence of concepts, however: we must still use these names on the way. Rather, our concepts are rendered transparent as we move toward silence. It is worth noting that this transparency does not entail union with God. Rather, it is is a preliminary openness to revelation, within which the Good clears “away the fog of ignorance … [unwrapping] those covered over by the burden of darkness.”23

I have argued that Pseudo-Denys’ cosmology casts creation as yearning for union with the One. This union must be effected by God, since divine transcendence renders its attainment beyond our capacity. As such, we cannot read Scriptural terms according to the ‘familiar categories of our sense perception.’ Acknowledging that union with God is God’s prerogative, we must instead relativize our concepts in their application to God, rendering them transparent to the light that draws “sacred minds upwards.” 24

If this holds, then Pseudo-Denys’ account fails on its own terms because ‘unity’ is not relativized.25 Now, he does say that God’s unity transcends “the unity … in beings,” claiming:

[God] is not one part of a plurality nor yet a total of parts. Indeed his oneness is not of this kind at all … Rather, he is one in a manner completely different from all this. He transcends the unity which is in beings. He is indivisible multiplicity, the unfilled overfullness which produces, perfects, and preserves all unity and multiplicity.26

This is undermined, however, by the combination of unity’s content and cosmological position in Pseudo-Denys’ world-view. Regarding content, this unity is a category of sense perception, for the One is shown to ground existence through our concept of unity.27 We can see this in Plotinus’ paradigmatic argument—implicit in Pseudo-Denys—that ‘the One’ is being’s transcendent ground. Plotinus claims that a) “it is in virtue of unity that beings are beings … deprived of unity, a thing ceases to be what it is called,”28 and b) anything “described as a unity is so in the precise degree in which it holds a characteristic being.”29 Even if there is a ‘form’ of unity, however, what we take to be the unity or characteristic being of a thing is what we are taught to see. We do not intuit the unity of a city or an army as participating in a transcendent One; we are taught what ‘one’ means through how we are taught to see these things as one. 30

The fact that unity’s content has this worldly origin is not inherently problematic—all terms applied to God have this character. The problem arises in combination with Pseudo-Denys’ positioning of the concept, which entails that what we take to be unified determines the One’s Unity. He casts unity as playing a fundamental causal role, for “no duality can be an originating source; the source of every duality is a monad.”31 It has a privileged place in the celestial hierarchy, where “unities hold a higher place than differentiations.”32 It is also primary to being: “multiplicity cannot exist without some participation in the One, [since] without the One there is no multiplicity, but there can still be the One where there is no multiplicity, just as one precedes all multiplied number.”33 Multiplicity and unity are thus placed in a hierarchy.

This would still not be a problem if worldly unity were then reflexively relativized by the One’s transcendence—but it is absolutized instead. With number, for example, the precedence of unity is illuminated by one’s precedence over multiplied number. But Pseudo-Denys also says that “transcendent unity defines the one itself and every number,”34 such that the One absolutizes the number-line which illuminated it. Of material things, he says “when things are said to be unified, this is in accordance with the preconceived form of the one proper to each.”35 But we arrived at unity by observing that a thing must be ‘one’ in order to be—and so by appeal to forms now ‘preconceived’ in the One. As such, unity is not applied analogically. It is treated as constituting divinity itself, not a concept to be predicated of divinity. It is thus absolutized as the guarantor of being, placed atop a hierarchy as subsuming conflict with multiplicity, such that “Unity itself [is the source] of everything unified.”36

Pseudo-Denys claims that the One’s unity transcends the unity of creatures, then. But instead of relativizing our concept of unity, he reads it into the being of God. He thus reads an absolutized category of sense perception into divinity. On his own terms, ‘the One’ is a human concept used to measure the divine, closing off the union for which we yearn.

It is important to qualify this argument in light of Pseudo-Denys’ account of creation. He claims that creation follows from “the beautiful, good superabundance of [God’s] yearning,”37 and denies that “evil is inherent in matter qua matter.”38 The fact something other than the One exists is not a negative thing—multiplicity is not a tragedy. He cannot, therefore, be described as denying diversity’s value. All the same, diversity’s goodness is conditional upon its relation to the prior good of unity. Multiplicity’s goodness is not denied, but it is still derivative.

If this interpretation of The Divine Names is plausible, it can now be argued that Wittgenstein continues and corrects Pseudo-Denys’ project. I am first going to argue that Wittgenstein’s thought pursues a religious end, and that this pursuit motivates an iconoclastic attack on Neo-Platonic unity.

Several of texts have explored religious aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought over the last few decades, especially in terms of epistemology and ethics. Several comparative studies, for example, have looked at religious applications of this thought in comparison to more conventionally religious writers. Genia Schönbaumsfeld has claimed that Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard’s religious epistemologies inform an account of ethical thinking. She argues that both reject “the craving for explanation and the idea that everything can be justified by appeal to the high court of reason.”39 As a consequence, “the call to have faith is an ethical imperative—it is an injunction to repent and transform the self … not a demand to change one’s ontology.”40 In a similar vein, the essays in Grammar and Grace compare aspects of Aquinas’ thought to Wittgenstein, especially their shared Augustinian conception of moral enquiry.41 There is much of value in both texts, but my focus is on the religious significance of an ontological aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought—specifically, his undermining a metaphysical view of unity which, though interwoven with epistemological and ethical considerations, is never reduced to epistemology or ethics.

Philip Shields’ Logic and Sin in the Writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein focuses on the inherently religious character of Wittgenstein’s thought, arguing that his “philosophical writings are fundamentally religious as they stand.”42 Shields bases his argument on “an analogy between the standards of sense and the will of God,”43 since the attempt to say what can only be shown leads to transgression and nonsense. Wittgenstein’s thought is thus religious because grammar carries a divine judge’s authority.44 There is much to commend in Shields’ work. His account fails, however, because Wittgenstein himself undermines this analogy. For Wittgenstein, the fact that “the only correlate in language to an intrinsic necessity is an arbitrary rule”45 means that although we must be obedient to some grammatical standard, no particular grammar can claim absolute authority.46

How should we read Wittgenstein as a religious thinker, then? I am going to begin with a remark made to Maurice Drury—“I am not a religious man, but I can’t help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”47 The fact religion occupied Wittgenstein’s thought is supported by notes in Culture and Value and his conversations with Drury, where he discusses a number of theologians.48 His corpus then helps us to interpret this claim to a religious perspective. His Lecture on Ethics offers the following account of the characteristics of religious experience:

I believe the best way of describing [this experience] is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world … Another experience straight away which I also know … [is] the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.’49

The context of these remarks may make interpretation appear difficult—after all, the lecture casts attempts to express these experiences as a hopeless running up against linguistic boundaries.50 This does not, however, count against Wittgenstein seeing experiences of wonder and safety as central to a religious feeling essential to human existence. It merely entails that he believed it impossible properly to express them.51

The importance of wonder and safety for Wittgenstein is borne out in his writings.52 In Culture and Value, he writes “man has to awaken to wonder … Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.”53 Given his belief that a narrow commitment to scientific method “leads the philosopher into complete darkness,”54 this points to wonder’s value. Second, Drury records saying to Wittgenstein that when, “Plato talks about the gods, it lacks that sense of awe which you feel throughout the Bible.” Wittgenstein replied “I think you have just said something very important. Much more important than you realize.”55 Finally, in 1947 he wrote:

The mathematician too can wonder at the miracles … of nature, of course, but can he do so once a problem has arisen about what it actually is he is contemplating? Is it really possible as long as the object that he finds astonishing and gazes at with awe is shrouded in philosophical fog?56

As we shall see, ‘dispersing the fog’ is a central goal of Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought. This motivates interpreting this remark as attributing great value to wonder.57

Regarding ‘safety,’ Ray Monk records Wittgenstein as trying to ease anxiety by finding a sense of security. He told Bertrand Russell that William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience might “improve me in a … way … I would like to improve very much: namely I think that it helps me to get rid of the Sorge [worry, anxiety].”58 Monk links this escape from Sorge to the feeling of safety from the Lecture on Ethics—the feeling that “no matter what happened in the world, nothing bad could happen to him.”59 Safety is then given a religious aspect in the comment that “only religious feelings” can ease fears following from Sorge.60

So, Wittgenstein valued ‘wonder’ and ‘safety,’ which he saw as characteristic of religious experience. It can now be shown that Wittgenstein aims to fulfill our yearning for these goods. We have already seen the question, “is [wonder] really possible as long as the object [found] astonishing … is shrouded in philosophical fog?”61 This is directly connected to Wittgenstein’s claim that “the general concept of the meaning of a word surrounds the working of language with a haze … [making] clear vision impossible.”62 He thus casts the goal of philosophy as dissolving this haze in order to attain “complete clarity.” 63

This clarity facilitates both wonder and safety. Regarding the former, seeing something clearly is a prerequisite for truly wondering at its existence. Regarding safety, clarity causes “philosophical problems completely [to] disappear.”64 Wittgenstein writes that “the real discovery is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to.—The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.”65 This goal of peace is cast in terms of desire when he writes “thoughts that are at peace. That’s what someone who philosophizes yearns for.”66 If it is allowed that peace is concomitant with the safety that comes from being free of Sorge, then peace is bound up with safety—and so clarity facilitates the religious feeling of security.67

We must now interpret what Wittgenstein means by ‘clarity’ (funnily enough, his usage is not all that clear). Shields reads it as signifying “the complete clarity of logical form [and] the demanding rigor of the limits of language.”68 Within this account, the clarity Wittgenstein seeks is a rigorous delineation of language’s internal limits.

Though there is truth to this account, there is reason to think that ‘clarity’ should be described in terms of transparency, not rigor per se—especially in cases where it is the impossibility of rigorously expressing limits that must be clarified. This is supported in The Blue Book, where Wittgenstein posits “clear-cut and transparent”69 sight as his method’s goal. Clarity-as-transparency is the operative concept in the question “who is to say that Scripture really is unclear? Isn’t it possible that it was essential … to tell a riddle?”—the answer to which is “you are only supposed to see clearly what appears clearly even in this representation.”70 It is operative in his reflection on the impossibility of exactly describing light reflecting off water, where clarity means recognizing “there is no such thing as exactness in this language game.”71 Finally, it is present in the claim that “no coloured picture … is able to represent the impression of ‘blurredness’ correctly,”72 such that clarity entails transparency to blurredness. Wittgenstein doesn’t present clarity as rigor, then, but as transparency to what is seen—especially when what must be seen is our inability to absolutely express rigorous boundaries.73

This search for clarity motivates an iconoclastic aspect to Wittgenstein’s thought. In The Big Typescript, he writes that “all that philosophy can do is to destroy idols.”74 Shields argues that Wittgenstein sees idolatry as the tendency to create “objects of ultimate trust which are unable to support the weight of reliance placed in them.”75 And we have seen his belief that seeking to absolutely express rigorous limits cuts off clarity. We can thus read him as treating those things which we think enable us to absolutely express these limits as idols to be destroyed.

So, Wittgenstein is a religious thinker because his philosophy is aimed at clarity as opening us to the religious goods of wonder and safety. This also motivates a desire to destroy idols. It must now be shown that this desire leads him to relativize the concept of unity.

We can begin with The Blue Book. After outlining a method of investigation which makes “the mental mist which … enshrouds our ordinary use of language disappear,” Wittgenstein says “what makes it difficult for us to take this line of investigation is our craving for generality.”76 This is rooted in a “preoccupation with the method of science”—namely:

the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalisation … This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.77

We have already seen Wittgenstein’s claim that science prevents us awakening to wonder. And regarding peace, he writes “perhaps science … having caused infinite misery in the process, will unite the world—I mean condense it into a single unit, though one in which peace is the last thing that will find a home”78 (contrary to Pseudo-Denys’ claim that Perfect Peace binds “all with the one homogenous yoke”79). It thus makes sense to read the motivating forces of this darkening tendency as idols which occlude wonder and peace.

Now, science itself is not the problem here.80 The problem is that a particular scientific method “elbows all others aside”81 asserting itself as an absolute principle of reasoning. It does this by tempting us with the idea that it can penetrate to the essences of things, which are to be “given once and for all, and independent of any future experience”82 in terms of a “formal unity.”83 This temptation is effective because of our urge “to understand the foundations, or essence, of everything empirical,”84 thinking this will give us clarity. For Wittgenstein, however, the idea that “what is peculiar, profound, and essential to us in our investigation resides in trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language”85 is an illusion.

We are now in a position to broach Wittgenstein’s undermining of Neo-Platonic unity—for these essences and this method are grounded in the presupposition of this unity. We can first see this by noting that our temptation to scienticism is facilitated by “the uniform appearance of words.”86 This surface uniformity means our language “keeps seducing us into asking … questions”87 like “‘what is language;’”88 questions which demand answers in the form of essences expressed by ideal concepts. We do, of course, employ ideal concepts for particular purposes, like an “ideal of exactitude.”89 But our craving for generality and language’s surface uniformity lead us to treat ideals as unitary forms as prejudices “to which everything has to conform.”90 We are “dazzled by the ideal, and fail to see the actual application of the word.”91 Thinking these applications must be uniform in their conformity to ideals, we “believe that there must after all in the last instance be uniformity … instead of holding … that it doesn’t have to exist.”92 To put this in the The Blue Book’s terms, we think that because things can be ‘one,’ ‘unity’ exists as a ‘shadow’ of this fact. We thus make ‘unity’ “a shadowy being, one of the many we create when flummoxed by substantives to which no material objects correspond.”93

This presumption of unity is then given a theological connection in the Investigations:

A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense unambiguously: … the form of expression seems to have been tailored for a god, who knows what we cannot know … For us, however, these forms of expression are like vestments, which we may put on, but cannot do much with since we lack the … power that would give them point and purpose.94

We are thus tempted by an almost divine knowledge. Ideals tempt us because we think they can delimit language unambiguously, giving one form to which all particulars must conform if they are to count as a thing. For Wittgenstein, however, this unity is a distorting nimbus, a shadow cast by prejudice.95 Both this deployment of unity and its ideal objects—analogues to Unity and the One in Neo-Platonism—are therefore idols to be destroyed.

It could be argued here that the unity Wittgenstein targets does not resemble Pseudo-Denys’ Neo-Platonic unity. After all, he focuses on unity as it emerges from discursive practices, whereas Pseudo-Denys appeals to a unity that is One in itself. Even if the One is a transcendent reality, however, we have seen that Neo-Platonic unity is grounded in discursive practices of naming. It is this emphasis on a thing being what it is called that guides Pseudo-Denys’ articulation of unity—such that even if a transcendent unity is allowed, the concept used to articulate this unity is grounded in the discursive practices dealt with by Wittgenstein.

I have argued that Wittgenstein attacks Neo-Platonic unity as an idol. We can now look at how he does this—by removing biases that force us to think “facts must conform to … pictures embedded in our language”96 and clearing away mistakes rooted in “analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of our language.”97 He attempts to do this by developing a perspicuous view of our diverse uses of ideal terms, so as to show “that things which look the same are really different.”98 He thus tries to guard “our assertions against distortion” by giving a “clear view … of what the ideal is, namely an object of comparison [rather than] a prejudice of it to which everything has to conform.”99

The most pertinent example of this is language itself. Wittgenstein says his method shows that “what we call ‘proposition,’ ‘language,’ has not the formal unity that I imagined, but is a family of structures more or less akin to one another.”100 The phenomena we call language “have no one thing in common in virtue of which we use the same word for all.”101 Language is thus irreducibly diverse, as are its rules and instruments.

The irreducible diversity of language then means that being is diverse as well. While investigating ‘imagination,’ for example, Wittgenstein states that focusing on the word’s diverse uses does not mean he wants “to talk only about words. For the question of what imagination essentially is, is as much about the word ‘imagination’ as my question.”102 Rather “essence is expressed by grammar.”103 And because grammars are irreducibly diverse and open to diverse applications,104 essences are likewise constituted by an internal multiplicity.

It could be argued here that the connection between unity, language, and ideals has still not been demonstrated. It is worth, then, going through parts of the Investigations touching directly on Neo-Platonic descriptions of ‘the One,’ to show that unity in Pseudo-Denys’ sense is indeed at issue. First: Pseudo-Denys describes God as transcendentally simple, “not one part of a plurality nor yet a total of parts.”105 Wittgenstein complicates efforts to ground unity in simplicity, however. He notes that we use the word “‘composite’ (and therefore the word ‘simple’) in an enormous number of different … ways,”106 then concludes that designating as simple grounds no deeper unity than we find in our diverse uses of ‘simple’ or ‘complex.’107 Secondly: as above, Pseudo-Denys says “God is transcendentally … unalterably and invariably the ‘same.’”108 Wittgenstein attacks the idea that ‘sameness’ connotes fundamental unity by noting “the use of the word ‘rule’ and the use of the word ‘same’ are interwoven.”109 Since rules underdetermine their diverse applications, the use of ‘same’ is likewise diverse and underdetermined.110 Again, the term grounds no unity deeper than is found in its usage. Finally, Plotinus describes the One as “the unity which is itself.”111 But Wittgenstein argues that ‘is’ is used in different ways without the ‘is’ of identity and the ‘is’ of predication disintegrating into different terms. These uses thus constitute a multiplicity in identity itself; a diversification-without-disintegration that undermines efforts to delimit unity by using ‘is’ to ground it in self-identity.112 There is good reason, then, to see him as undermining Neo-Platonic unity—for in undermining of unitary ideals, he undermines ideals of unity.113

It is important to note that Wittgenstein does not exorcise ideals or unity, which would make an idol out of the “absence of idols.”114 Both play roles in language-games. Nor does he, as Shields puts it, invert “Neo-Platonic ontology [by] taking ‘the many’ as the ground of meaning that expresses the will of God and taking the One as an idol.”115 For even though ‘the One’ is an idol, inverting this structure would make multiplicity an idol instead. Rather, he dissolves the prejudices that sort unity and multiplicity into an ontological hierarchy, such that neither has superior status—an attempt which can be described as dismantling “the edifice of our pride,”116 instead of redecorating the same edifice with different idols.

With this nuance, we can see Wittgenstein’s thought as directed against Neo-Platonic unity for religious reasons—he attacks it as an idol that cuts off clarity by shrouding thought in philosophical fog, and he seeks this clarity because it is a precondition of the religious goods for which we yearn. We can therefore read Wittgenstein as continuing and correcting Pseudo-Denys’ project. Regarding continuation, he relativizes concepts so as to dissolve idols that occlude religious goods. Regarding correction, meanwhile, he treats Pseudo-Denys’ concept of ‘unity’ as an idol, meaning he can pursue this shared project more thoroughly. There is an important difference between the two thinkers, in that Pseudo-Denys relativizes concepts in their application to God, while Wittgenstein does so through an analysis of language per se. Pseudo-Denys’ demonstration of concepts’ relativity in the highest spheres should undermine their claim to absoluteness in the lowest, however. We can thus identify Pseudo-Denys’ relativizing above and Wittgenstein’s relativizing below as part of the same theological project.

I have argued that Wittgenstein attacks a Neo-Platonic concept of unity for Pseudo-Dionysian reasons. There are still questions to be broached, however. This identification has not been shown to be more than accidental—the fact Wittgenstein saw his thought as religious does not entail its being religious in a sense Pseudo-Denys would recognize. Neither has Wittgenstein’s self-description as ‘not a religious man’ been accounted for. We must show, then, that his ‘religious point of view’ non-accidentally connects him to Pseudo-Denys in a way that allows the validity of his non-religious self-designation.117

Earl Fronda has attempted to link Wittgenstein to Pseudo-Denys. He argues that Wittgenstein claims “metaphysical statements [including statements about God] are nonsense because they transgress limits of language,”118 on the basis that language is conditioned by a finitude that renders speech about God impossible. God is thus ‘semantically transcendent,’ such that “to Wittgenstein, one cannot speak literally of the transcendent god.”119 This is identified with Pseudo-Denys’ mysticism. I am not convinced by this reasoning, however. Apophaticism does not necessarily render thought either ‘religious’ or Pseudo-Dionysian. Apart from a clearly specified account of God, the fact that “about the transcendent, the mature Wittgenstein … opts for silence”120 can just as easily lead to materialist positivism as religious mysticism. If Wittgenstein’s thought is to be identified with Pseudo-Denys’, then, it must be shown that his view of God is similar enough to Pseudo-Denys’ for this to be plausible.

Helpfully, Wittgenstein provides us with resources to discern his conception of divinity. He writes in the preface to the Investigations that it might fall to his book “in the darkness of this time… to bring light into one brain or another.”121 The possibility of this light, however lies outside himself—in a note in Culture and Value, he writes “the light work sheds is a beautiful light, which, however, only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.”122 He also asks “is what I am doing really worth the effort? Yes, but only if a light shines on it from above.”123 Finally, he states “it may be that what gives my thoughts their luster on these occasions is a light shining on them from behind. That they do not themselves glow.”124 The value of his thought, then, comes from light above. This image is not incidental either. It is in Augustine’s Confessions,125 which Wittgenstein described as “the most serious book ever written.”126 Drury also notes that “Wittgenstein chose his metaphors with great care,”127 which is pertinent here since religious similes “move on the edge of an abyss.”128

Light, then, can be seen as religiously significant to Wittgenstein. A letter to G.E. Moore in 1941 fleshes out this significance. Wittgenstein expresses the fear that Moore is walking on the “edge of a cliff at the bottom of which I see lots of philosophers and scientists lying dead.”129 He asks Moore to read a poem called The Sacred Fire, saying “I hope it will tell you exactly what I want to say.”130 It describes two fires. The first is Vesta’s eternal fire, tended by the Vestal Virgins. The second is a fire “within my breast.” This second fire “leaps up warm at every tide and turn, a standing offering at the Muses’ shrine. By their breath kindled, for them does it burn.”131 Though the poem is open to interpretation, it implies a) that the second fire responds to the movement of the first and/or b) that the second fire is kindled by and for divine guardians. Whatever the case, the necessity of openness to divine significance is emphasized.

We can here see Wittgenstein impressing on Moore the belief that we come to truth by corresponding to eternal light and/or recognising dependence on forces beyond us. We can thus read his account of clarity under a double-aspect. It is transparency to how things are, opening us to wonder and peace. But it is also transparency to divine significance—transparency to a light above, lest we think our light shines by its own power; transparency to a power beyond, lest we starve our fires of their source and goal. Read against his early claim that “we are in a certain sense dependent, and what we are dependent on we can call God,”132 this provides Wittgenstein’s view of divinity: God is that on which he depends to illuminate his thought, and so open him to wonder and safety.133 As Shields says, then, at the core of Wittgenstein’s thought is the idea that “we are ultimately dependent, as it were, on the … grace of God.”134

This makes sense in the context of Wittgenstein’s wider statements. It makes sense of his saying to Drury that “a religious person regards placidity or peace as a gift from heaven, not as something one ought to hunt after”135—a recognition which, by noting that we must receive what we yearn for, limits philosophy. It makes sense of his wanting his work to be seen (like Bach’s) as being “to the glory of the God most high, and that my neighbor may be benefitted thereby.”136 Finally, it makes sense of why he “thanked God for a gift he did not deserve”137 when able to work after feeling mentally cramped.

This reading also allows us to hypothesize as to why Wittgenstein said he was not a religious man. In Culture and Value he states, “a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference.”138 But though he saw Christianity’s symbolism as “wonderful beyond words,”139 he could not commit himself to it, not because of contempt for religion, but his own feeling of inadequacy. He wrote that only if he submerged himself in religion could “doubts [about myself] be stilled. Because only religion would have the power to destroy vanity.”140 He stated “I said I can stop doing philosophy when I like. That is a lie! I can’t”141—entailing that he could not find peace. Wittgenstein’s non-religiousness can thus be read as a function of his felt incapacity for religious goods—his lack of transparency and clarity—rather than a dismissal of religious faith.142

I have given a minimal account of Wittgenstein’s conception of God. But his description of divinity in terms of the light and fire which give a knowledge that grants peace bears a strong family resemblance to Pseudo-Denys’ descriptions of divine activity. To take two examples, Pseudo-Denys claims both that God grants “enlightenments proportionate to each being, and … draws sacred minds upwards to permitted contemplation,”143 and that “we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him.”144 If this holds, then Pseudo-Denys and Wittgenstein share minimally but non-accidentally similar conceptions of divinity: God is that upon which we depend for the revelation of truth. There are, of course, differences in their senses of the divine—after all, this paper has argued that Wittgenstein undermines Pseudo-Denys’ understanding of divine unity. But their accounts of our yearning for, dependence on, and transparency to the divine are sufficiently similar for them to be identified together in their religious thought.

To conclude: both Pseudo-Denys and Wittgenstein seek to render us transparent to the divine by relativising human concepts. This prevents us from reading our concepts into the divine nature, thus cutting ourselves off from union with the divine. Pseudo-Denys does not relativize ‘unity,’ however, undermining his project. Wittgenstein does relativize unity for religious motivations similar to Pseudo-Denys’. As such, Wittgenstein continues and corrects the Pseudo-Denys’ project in The Divine Names.

  1. Luibhéid, Colm, and Pseudo-Denys, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), pp.77-78 ↩︎
  2. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.58 ↩︎
  3. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.79 ↩︎
  4. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.79 ↩︎
  5. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p. 81 ↩︎
  6. C.f. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.130, where he states that the method of negation “guides the soul through all the divine notions” so that “the soul is brought into union with God himself to the extent that every one of us is capable of it.” ↩︎
  7. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.49 ↩︎
  8. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.49 ↩︎
  9. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.49 ↩︎
  10. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.105 ↩︎
  11. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.106 ↩︎
  12. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.107 ↩︎
  13. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.53. My Emphasis ↩︎
  14. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a 15.5.c; cit. Ralph M. McInerny, Aquinas and Analogy (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p.96. ↩︎
  15. It is worth noting here that, as stated by Kathryn Tanner in Theories of Culture (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997) relativise can have two senses: “the sense of containing such material within its proper bounds under God, and the sense of setting it in a proper relation to God.” (p.145-146). I believe that the argument made here works whichever sense of ‘relativize’ is employed, but the potential ambiguity is important to note. ↩︎
  16. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.116 ↩︎
  17. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.116 ↩︎
  18. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.116 ↩︎
  19. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.52 ↩︎
  20. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.54 ↩︎
  21. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.54 ↩︎
  22. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.50 ↩︎
  23. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.75 It is worth noting that this conceptual transparency is a necessary step on the way to silence. As such, it has a reality of its own, and critiques can be levelled against it in such a way as to threaten the integrity of the path as a whole. In the case of this paper, the argument is that a failure to render the concept of unity transparent in this way means that certain features of this concept illicitly structure the nature of the being before which we are supposed to be silent. ↩︎
  24. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.50 ↩︎
  25. ‘Unity’ is read here as an attribute of divine being. It can also be read as referring to the ideal relationship between creatures and creator at which Pseudo-Denys aims (c.f. Complete Works, p.49). The nature of relationship itself, however, is understood as following from divine unity—the way God is One determines what it means for us to be one with God. ↩︎
  26. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.67. C.f. Also, p.54, that the supra-essential being of God is “at a total remove from every … unity.” ↩︎
  27. As with ‘relativise,’ I am conscious that there are at least two possible readings of ‘category’ here. It could mean either a category formulated by our sense perception, or a category according to which sense perception is possible at all. The argument works in either case, however. ↩︎
  28. Plotinus, Stephen Mackenna, and John M. Dillon, The Enneads (London: Penguin, 1991), 9th Tractate, Chapter 1 ↩︎
  29. Plotinus, The Enneads, 9th Tractate, Chapter 1 ↩︎
  30. C.f. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.53: “One can neither discuss nor understand the One … nor can one speak about and have knowledge of the fitting way in which the holy angels can commune with the comings or with the effects of the transcendentally overwhelming goodness.” This entails that there is no means of knowing unity directly apart from the modes of teaching by which we learn other concepts. ↩︎
  31. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.88 ↩︎
  32. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.67 ↩︎
  33. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.128 ↩︎
  34. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.129 ↩︎
  35. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.128 ↩︎
  36. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.99 ↩︎
  37. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.82 ↩︎
  38. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.92 ↩︎
  39. Genia Schönbaumsfield, A Confusion of the Spheres: Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein on Philosophy and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.149 ↩︎
  40. Schönbaumsfield, Confusion of the Spheres, p.173 ↩︎
  41. C.f. Jeffrey Stout and Robert McSwain, Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein (London: SCM Press, 2004), p.3 ↩︎
  42. Philip R. Shields, Logic and Sin in the Writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p.2 ↩︎
  43. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.50 ↩︎
  44. c.f. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.47 ↩︎
  45. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.46 ↩︎
  46. C.f. Also Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1975), para.617 ↩︎
  47. O’C M. Drury, The Danger of Words: And Writings on Wittgenstein (Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 1996), p.xiv (Preface) ↩︎
  48. For example, Calvin (The Danger of Words, p.166-7), Hooker (p.135), Barth (pp.119 and 146), Origen (p.161) and Lessing (pp.134 and 166). ↩︎
  49. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics, Philosophical Occasions: 1912-1951 (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), p.41 ↩︎
  50. Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics, p.44 ↩︎
  51. The desire to try and express such things is also cast in a positive light at the end of the lecture, where he says calls is “a tendency in the human mind which I … cannot help respecting deeply.” (Wittgenstein, Lecture on Ethics, p.44) ↩︎
  52. Indeed, Jennifer Herdt claims that “one of the most sustained … themes in Wittgenstein’s thought … was that of wonder at the existence of the world.” (Grammar and Grace, p.247) ↩︎
  53. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1984), p.5 ↩︎
  54. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper and Row, 1995) p.18 ↩︎
  55. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.161 ↩︎
  56. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.57 ↩︎
  57. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.56. C.f. also Philosophical Investigations (ed. P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, 4th ed. (United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), para.524. The earlier argument against trying to express this wonder is also complicated by the fact that this remark appears after the imperative “don’t, for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.” ↩︎
  58. Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991), p.51. This is borne out by Drury, who reports Wittgenstein reporting that James “helped me a lot at one time.” (The Danger of Words, p.106) ↩︎
  59. Monk, The Duty of Genius, p.51 ↩︎
  60. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.100 ↩︎
  61. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.57 ↩︎
  62. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.5 ↩︎
  63. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.133 ↩︎
  64. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.133 ↩︎
  65. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.133 ↩︎
  66. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.43 ↩︎
  67. I am going to use peace and safety interchangeably for the rest of this paper, on the basis that each entails the other. ↩︎
  68. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.40 ↩︎
  69. Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p.17 ↩︎
  70. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.31 ↩︎
  71. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol.1, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1980), para.1080 ↩︎
  72. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Remarks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p.260 ↩︎
  73. C.f. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.79: Say what you please, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing how things are. (And when you see that, there will be some things that you won’t say.) ↩︎
  74. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript, TS. 213 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell 2013), p.305 ↩︎
  75. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.86. ↩︎
  76. Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p.17 ↩︎
  77. Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p.18 ↩︎
  78. Monk, The Duty of Genius, p.485 ↩︎
  79. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.122-3 ↩︎
  80. After all, Wittgenstein delighted in scientific investigation. C.f. Monk, The Duty of Genius, p.453 for a description of Wittgenstein’s experimental work during the war in Newcastle. ↩︎
  81. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.60 ↩︎
  82. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.92 ↩︎
  83. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.108 ↩︎
  84. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.89 ↩︎
  85. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.97 ↩︎
  86. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.11 ↩︎
  87. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.15 ↩︎
  88. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.92 ↩︎
  89. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.37 ↩︎
  90. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.26 ↩︎
  91. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.100 ↩︎
  92. Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol.1, para.907. ↩︎
  93. Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p.36. ↩︎
  94. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.426. My emphasis. C.f. Also paras.346 and 352. ↩︎
  95. C.f. Philosophical Investigations, para.97: “Thinking is surrounded by a nimbus.—Its essence, logic, presents an order: namely, the a priori order of the world; that is, the order of possibilities, which the world and thinking must have in common. But this order, it seems, must be utterly simple. It is prior to all experience, must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty may attach to it.” ↩︎
  96. Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, p.43 ↩︎
  97. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.90 ↩︎
  98. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.157 ↩︎
  99. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.26 ↩︎
  100. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.108 ↩︎
  101. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.35 ↩︎
  102. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.370 ↩︎
  103. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.370 ↩︎
  104. C.f. Michael N. Forster, The Arbitrariness of Grammar (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2009), pp.21-30 which elucidates Wittgenstein’s commitment to a ‘diversity thesis’ regarding the irreducible diversity of grammars. ↩︎
  105. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.67 ↩︎
  106. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.47 ↩︎
  107. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.47 ↩︎
  108. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.116 ↩︎
  109. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.225 ↩︎
  110. C.f. Lee Braver, Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), p.121: “As the later Wittgenstein never tires of demonstrating, pictures underdetermine how we use them … [but] automatically following rules in standard ways makes it feel as though the application were contained within the rule.” ↩︎
  111. Plotinus, The Enneads, Tractate 9, Chapter 2 ↩︎
  112. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paras.561, 562. C.f. Also para.216: ‘A thing is identical with itself.’—There is no finer example of a useless sentence, which nevertheless is connected with a certain play of the imagination. ↩︎
  113. It could be argued that Pseudo-Denys can make appeal to the Scriptural claim that God is one here (c.f. Deuteronomy 6:4, NIV translation). It is important to note that what is at stake is not the claim that God is One (as well as simple and eternally the same). The argument focuses on whether these claims index the character of God’s being to a particular account of what it is to be ‘one.’ ↩︎
  114. Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript, p.305 ↩︎
  115. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.77 ↩︎
  116. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.26 It is not accidental that this was written around the same time as the comment about the need to guard our statements against distortion through a clear vision of the ideal, cited above. ↩︎
  117. I am not going to argue for a definition of what it means to be ‘religious’ here. Rather, I am going to argue that Wittgenstein and Pseudo-Denys are similar enough to ground the claim that if the latter’s thought is religious, then the former’s is as well. ↩︎
  118. Earl Stanley Fronda, Wittgenstein’s (Misunderstood) Religious Thought (Boston: Brill, 2010) p.20-21 ↩︎
  119. Fronda, Wittgenstein’s (Misunderstood) Religious Thought, p.204 ↩︎
  120. Fronda, Wittgenstein’s (Misunderstood) Religious Thought, p.69 ↩︎
  121. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para.4 ↩︎
  122. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.26 ↩︎
  123. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.57 ↩︎
  124. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.66 ↩︎
  125. C.f. Saint Augustine, Confessions (London: Penguin, 1961), especially Book VII:10 ↩︎
  126. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.90 ↩︎
  127. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.ix ↩︎
  128. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.29 ↩︎
  129. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents, 1911-1951 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2012), p.341 ↩︎
  130. Wittgenstein and McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.341 ↩︎
  131. Das heilige Feuer, Conrad Meyer, English Translation in Wittgenstein and McGuinness, Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.342 ↩︎
  132. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks, 1914-16 (Basil Blackwell, 1961), p.74 There is reason to believe he retained this belied throughout his life: Drury records him saying “my fundamental ideas came to me very early in life,” (The Danger of Words, p.ix) including the idea of a mysterious side to nature about which we cannot speak, but on which we must depend if we are to show how things are. ↩︎
  133. It is perhaps worth noting a statement of Wittgenstein’s that I am not employing here: “What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics.” (Duty of Genius, p.278) I am passing over it because, though an important statement, it doesn’t convey any information without either a clear sense of Wittgenstein’s view of what is ‘good’ or what is ‘divine.’ On the basis of the claims made in this paper, moreover, it is plausible to me that we can learn more of Wittgenstein’s view of what is good from his view of the divine than vice versa. ↩︎
  134. Shields, Logic and Sin, p.86 ↩︎
  135. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.96 ↩︎
  136. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.168, from a draft preface for Philosophical Remarks. ↩︎
  137. Monk, The Duty of Genius, p.383 ↩︎
  138. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.64 ↩︎
  139. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.86 ↩︎
  140. Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p.48 ↩︎
  141. Drury, The Danger of Words, p.219 ↩︎
  142. C.f. Monk, The Duty of Genius, p.383 I believe that Wittgenstein’s self-exclusion from the religious sphere points to an inconsistency in his thought—namely that peace and wonder rely on recognizing what is beyond one’s capacity, but that one must shape oneself into being able to recognize this. Given his comment to Drury, however—that a religious person views placidity as a gift—it may also be that it is precisely for this reason that he excluded himself; that his sense of irreligiousness stemmed from his inability to live into the idea that he could only find peace by receiving it. ↩︎
  143. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.50 ↩︎
  144. Pseudo-Denys, Complete Works, p.52 ↩︎

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