Showing The Fly The Way Out Of The Bottle

Wittgenstein thought that Descartes's bifurcation of subject and object was particularly baneful philosophical confusion: "The idea of thinking as a process in the head, in a completely enclosed space, makes thinking something occult."17 "One of the most dangerous ideas for a philosopher is, oddly enough, that we think with our heads or in our heads."18 In order to counter such enchantments, he developed a therapeutic method of philosophy that attended to the "grammar" of ordinary language. In other words, Wittgenstein concerned himself with the patterns of ordinary language use within a given social matrix. This strategy undermines the very way the skeptic sets up the knowledge problem as one of ascertaining the correspondence between an individual's concepts and brute reality "out there."

Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p. 174.

17 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar, ed. Rush Rhees, trans. Anthony Kenny

18 (BerkeleY anc' Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), section 64.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M.

Anscombe (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), section 605.

Attending to the grammar of concepts - that is, to the linguistic practice of ordinary speakers (and here the plurality of "speakers" in every case is of utmost importance and yet all too frequently overlooked) - can prevent seeds of bafflement from taking root. At this point we might be tempted to ask whether Wittgenstein is not simply a behaviorist in disguise: "Aren't you at bottom really saying that everything except human behavior is a fiction?" Wittgenstein replied tersely to this question: "If I do speak of a fiction, then it is of a grammatical fiction."19 His point is this: behaviorism looks at stimulus-response conditioning operating on the individual, whereas grammatical analysis comes to a full stop at the givenness of the whole hurly-burly of our social-linguistic world. In other words, what is real for humans is shown by the way human beings - in the plural - speak with one another. To pronounce upon matters that lie beyond the boundaries of language use can only breed confusion.

What troubled Wittgenstein was the pervasiveness of the urge to overcome the putative problem of skepticism by attempting to specify the correspondence between one's ideas "in here" and the world "out there." Kant dealt with the problem by making a sharp distinction between things-as-they-appear-to-us and (unknowable) things-as-they-are-in-themselves. While Kant himself thought that the mind that structured the phenomenal world was transculturally uniform, his work left open the possibility that persons or groups might operate with radically different cognitive frameworks - a possibility that only augmented skepticism. But Wittgenstein pressed Kant in a different direction. Crudely put, language played the part for Wittgenstein that the categorial framework played for Kant. And his careful exegesis of the hurly-burly of everyday speaking enabled Wittgenstein to untangle Cartesian skepticism. To recap, the problem for thinkers from Descartes onward has been knowing whether one's ideas corresponded with reality. Staring at my hand, I can wonder, "I don't know if this is a hand." But Wittgenstein can reply: "But do you know what the word 'hand' means? And don't say 'I know what it means now for me.' And isn't it an empirical fact - that this word is used like this?"20

Wittgenstein's celebrated demonstration of the impossibility of private language means that doubt can only go as deep as one's fluency in his or her native tongue. Moreover, one can never get a purchase on language to

19 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and Rush Rhees, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), section 307.

20 Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G. e. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1972), section 306.

analyze it in general, for every description is done by means of language. Wittgenstein wryly observed:

A French politician once said that it was a special characteristic of the French language that in French sentences words occurred in the sequence in which one thinks them.

The idea that one language in contrast to others has a word order which corresponds to the order of thinking arises from the notion that thought is an essentially different process going on independently of the expression of the thoughts.21

We cannot treat the world in isolation from language because it is by means of language that we "treat" anything at all. Language is the means by which we understand both our world and ourselves: "It is in language that it is all done."22

Human inability to escape the inextricability of language and world enabled Wittgenstein to envision a realism that altogether avoided the problems of Cartesian skepticism. Wittgenstein asks: "How do I know that this color is red? It would be an answer to say 'I have learnt English.' "23

This strategy is not as trivial as it first appears. Imagine the skeptic standing in a downpour asking: "How do I know that I am wet?" For Wittgenstein, no puzzle surrounds the concept "know" that is not simultaneously solved by attention to the grammar of the word "wet." We learned the concept "wet" by being drilled by our mothers: "Come in out of the rain this instant! You're soaking wet!" Standing in the rain, wetting our beds, spilling on our shirts, falling down in puddles, and the like, comprise a complicated form of life in which young English speakers are socialized into correct usage of the term "wet." Thus, the adult who speaks the word in the context of a steady rain already correctly uses the concept, which is to say, coherent with the way the rest of the linguistic community uses the term. This habitual reflex for correct usage is what we mean, at bottom, by retorting to the skeptic, "You're all wet!"

The philosopher's temptation is always to use words in illegitimate or ungrammatical ways. The skeptic overlooks the ordinary use of words like "know" when asking "how do I know I'm wet?" Philosophy of religion suffers from similar confusion and requires a similar therapy: believers insist, and atheists deny, that "God exists." But the grammar of "exists" shows that the sentence engenders confusion. We ordinarily say, "For how long has this institution existed?", "When did dinosaurs cease to exist?" and "Sadly,

21 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Grammar, section 66.

Ibid., section 95. 23 Ibid., section 381.

racism still exists in the world today." In each case, it makes sense to speak of something's coming into existence and passing out of existence - a mode of reality that Christian believers rightly say does not apply to God. If the grammar of "exists" means that the word applies to the furniture of the universe, then we ought to agree with the atheist that God does not "exist." As Kierkegaard put it, "God does not exist, He is eternal."24

A similar analysis could be made of the grammar of the word "God." What does the word "God" mean? The word becomes meaningful by its use in a complicated form of life: we pray to God, we witness about God, we confess our sins to God, and so on. If practice gives the word its sense, then the word "God" spoken from within an atheistic form of life and the word "God" spoken by Christian believers are simply homonyms. It is no wonder that the theist-atheist debate has been interminable.

What astonished Wittgenstein is the (largely unnoticed) agreement in our form of life that enables linguistic practices to become matters of habit. We pucker at lemons, coo at babies, cry when we skin a knee, and pale when our friend skins a knee. Wittgenstein calls these behaviors "primitive reactions" in order to emphasize their givenness for the functioning of language. One way (and only one way) to think of the connection between primitive reactions and language use is to imagine vocables as going proxy for these other behaviors.

How do words refer to sensations?... Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behavior.

"So you are saying that the word 'pain' really means crying?" - On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.25

Wittgenstein's point is that language does not refer, or picture, or correspond to, some nonlinguistic reality; there is no way for us to imagine that to which language corresponds ("a state of affairs," "the world," "reality," etc.) except in terms of the very language that this "reality" is supposed to be considered in isolation of. Rather, learning a language is an irreducibly social enterprise by which a child is trained into a communal mode of living. Thus Wittgenstein likened language to a series of games that require partners for playing: "In a conversation: One person throws a ball; the other does

24 Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, intro. and notes by Walter Lowrie, trans. David F. Swenson (Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 296.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, section 244. See also section 257.

not know: whether he is supposed to throw it back, or throw it to a third person, or leave it on the ground, or pick it up and put it in his pocket, etc."26

Wittgenstein saw an interdependent relation among primitive reactions, socially constituted forms of life, and language use. Agreement in primitive reactions constitutes a community's form of life, which, in turn, conditions the shape of its language-games, which, in turn, shapes the way the community conceives the world, which, in turn, shapes the primitive reactions shared by its members.27

Such an arrangement has suggested to some the need for a wholesale conversion to a very different way of thinking. At the very center of this conversion would be a deep humility that confesses grave human limits; we cannot pretend to achieve a translinguistic God's-eye view from which to judge the putative correspondence between ideas and words or between words and states of affairs. We receive our community's linguistic practices, and the form of life internally related to these practices, as a gift that enables communication - but only within grammatical limits. How humiliating! Surely we can do better than that! But perhaps we cannot recover from Babel after all.

For Wittgenstein, our human inability to extract language from world or world from language meant that the picture of the Cartesian theater, which so neatly separated subjects from objects, only muddies the water. In contrast, clarity begins with an acknowledgment of the irreducibly social character of human experience and the intrinsic relation of human experience to the real world: "What has to be accepted, the given, is - so one could say -forms of life."29.

For theologians after Wittgenstein, there is much work to do in order to free religious believers from the Cartesian bottle. To take up our former examples, what distinguishes human persons is not the possession of a little "I" inside the mind, but the practice of telling stories and having our stories told to and by one another.29 Thus, we are not persons yet, but persons-on-the-way as our stories unfold. Moreover, as Lash warns, "religious experience" is neither private nor self-identifying nor self-authenticating. What counts as "religious" experience can only be so identified and described once the communal gift of language is already largely in place. By the same token, if naming appears to be the paradigmatic case of the Cartesian ego acting

26 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, trans. ^ Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), p. 74c.

See Brad J. Kallenberg, Ethics as Grammar: Changing the Postmodern Subject (University of

29 ^tt8enstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 226e.

Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p. 73.

in isolation, Lash cannot imagine the word "God" functioning simply as a label. Rather, "God" acts as a proxy for a whole host of stories that manifest God's publicly knowable character. (What can "yhwh yireh" mean but a shorthand account of Genesis 22?) Finally, the question of God's existence is inappropriate because the grammar of "God" does not admit questions of existence, for that puts matters too hypothetically. As Wittgenstein commented to Drury: "Can you imagine St. Augustine saying that the existence of God was 'highly probable'?"!30

It is frequently objected that Wittgenstein's work yields a fideism that undermines theology's ability to do serious work. In surprising contrast, Wittgenstein thought that it was Descartes's legacy that threatened to distort theology: "if you believe, say, Spinoza or Kant, this interferes with what you believe in religion; but if you believe me, nothing of the sort."31

From Wittgenstein's stance, first-order religious claims mean what they mean within the given form of life. Referring explicitly to theology, Wittgenstein remarked: "How words are understood is not told by words alone,"33 rather, it is praxis that gives words their sense.33 But this does not mean that religious claims are insulated from criticism. On the contrary, theology performs both critical and constructive tasks. By attending to the grammar of religious discourse, theologians discipline the tendency of believers' words toward self-delusion and over-simplification. Moreover, theological grammarians coach believers in the proper use of first-order language in a way that enables them to see the pattern of God's presence in the realm of the ordinary. In Lash's words:

It is the task of those who bear the burden of theological responsibility to show, quite concretely, in particular circumstances, how it is that the question of human identity, significance and destiny may be construed as the question of God; to show how it is that the coincidence of these questions, as the content of specifically Christian hope, is clarified, defined and illuminated by the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.34

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