Monday, November 8, 2010


In connection with writing about religious experiences recently it occurred to me that Wittgenstein says some interesting things about them in his Lecture on Ethics. He describes three kinds of experiences in order to get across what he means by 'ethics' and goes on to connect them with kinds of religious experience and expression.

Wittgenstein begins the lecture with an odd kind of definition of his key term. He says he is going to use Moore's "explanation" of ethics as "the general enquiry into what is good," but then immediately says he is going to use 'Ethics' in a wider sense than this. He says that the clearest possible understanding of what he means by 'Ethics' can be got by his giving a collection of "more or less synonymous expressions," so that an overall impression will be created, similar to the kind of impression Galton produced when he made a composite photograph. Galton's technique is dodgy in two ways: it isn't reliable (the results can be manipulated by choosing particular people to include or exclude, for instance, and his attempts to reveal a facial type of this or that criminal (e.g. murderer, thief, etc.) were apparently unsuccessful), and it is connected with racism. Galton considered the Chinese to be racially superior to Africans, for instance, and the point of his technique is to produce a kind of literal racial stereotype. Nevertheless, it seems that the technique can be effective: see here, for instance. And the idea of family resemblance seems generally harmless. (Wittgenstein's thinking here is reminiscent of the disagreement between Berkeley and Locke on abstract ideas. Does Galton disprove Berkeley's claim that "nothing abstract or general can be made really to exist"?)

Ethics, Wittgenstein says, has to do with absolute value, absolute goodness, absolute importance, and so on, as distinct from merely relative (means-end) value, etc. Since this is not a matter of fact (it is not a scientific fact that this or that has absolute value or is absolutely good), it is a matter of feeling. So Wittgenstein talks about experiences he has that make him want to use such expressions as "absolute value" and so on. There is a direct link between the experience or feeling and the expression (form of words) used to express it. The experience is what is expressed by or in the expression. So although we're talking about psychology, we are also talking about grammar.

Wittgenstein has one experience that he associates above all with ethics as he means it, namely the feeling of wonder that the world should exist at all. But he has a couple of others too: the feeling of being absolutely safe (which reminds me of Socrates' saying that a good person cannot be harmed--that being poisoned to death is somehow not really suffering any harm) and the feeling of guilt.

Each of these experiences also has a religious form of expression, he suggests:
For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. A third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.
But if the form of expression is inseparable from what is expressed, as I suggested, then how can a religious and a non-religious form of words refer to exactly the same thing? I think we have to leave open the possibility that when the words are different the experience is different. But just as different definitions of 'ethics' can share a family resemblance, so too can different expressions of ethical or religious experiences. In that case, having 'religious' experiences does not commit one to being religious--the experience can be translated into different language.

Religion offers a way to tie these experiences together, and to other beliefs, feelings, etc., in away that might help you make sense of the world, of life. But it also ties you, or so it seems, to certain texts, forms of words, rituals, and so on, that might seem tired or incredible. If the 'metaphor' used to express these real experiences has become dead, then there is reason to reject it. Then the challenge becomes how to talk or think about these experiences, and how to connect them with the rest of your life. This is a challenge we cannot meet, according to Wittgenstein (and never could, even within religion): "the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless." But unless we just don't think about these supremely valuable experiences (assuming we have them, or have had them), then we have no option but to at least think nonsense. Our lives, at least on the inside, will then consist in part of a hopeless running against the walls of language. And what is this if not a form of creative expression, of art?


  1. wouldn't that only be the case when the expression was… artful?

  2. Yes. But perhaps it would inevitably be so. This calls for more thought--thanks.

  3. the general drift is kind of working in the opposite direction from expressing the inexpressible absolute, but the third poem here ('on everyday theatre') might be relevant:

  4. Thanks, I hadn't seen these before.

    I don't know how much opposition or contrast there is between what Brecht is saying and what Wittgenstein is saying. As I read them, neither denies the value of all intended-to-be-permanent (or final, like the last word on a subject) art, but each emphasizes a kind of practical activity. If attempts to write ethics or religion are hopeless runnings against the limits of language, then I don't see why one would ever think the task was completed. And if an experience is to be expressed but cannot be captured in words then, although it might be some use to use words, it might have to be expressed in other ways too. Perhaps how you live your daily life could express something.

    Not that Wittgenstein and Brecht are saying exactly the same thing, but they might have compatible ideas, at least to some extent. Which I guess is your point. And it seems right to me.

  5. yeah, i just meant to register my uncertainty about brecht, regarding attitudes not in evidence toward 'absolutes' and such things. there's some somewhat familiar sublimity about nature and such expressed in some of his earlier poems, but beyond that i just can't say. well. i guess his sense of justice is fairly strong.

    i wonder if they might be compared in terms of 'immanence' (of ethics in practical life, let's say?), but i've never understood what exactly that means except 'not transcendence' (but i've never understood 'transcendence' all that exactly). 'shown in how you live your daily life' sounds apt.

  6. The poems remind me a little bit of "Ornament and Crime" by Adolf Loos, which is worth a read if you don't know it. 'Immanence' makes me think of the verse from the Qur'an that says God is closer than the vein in your neck. 'Transcendence' is harder; something like "beyond all this," but that sounds too much like "over there." So, if 'immanence' means 'not over there' then it would mean something like 'right here.' And there is something to that, to that rejection of distance or distancing in ethics. I think it comes out (or comes up) in Cora Diamond's essay on the difficulty of reality and the difficulty of philosophy, where the first kind of difficulty is more existential (if we can still use that word) and certainly relates to Wittgenstein's thoughts on wonder. The difficulty of philosophy (though certainly real) is more technical. And there is a tendency to want to make the first kind of problem a technical problem, and then get to work on cranking out a solution. But this is getting away from Brecht now.

  7. Sometimes I think the hopelessness is something like trying to give proof (or per your newer post) a foundation that lies beneath our ethical reactions, but on the other hand, that doesn't rule out poetic expression (and that project isn't exactly hopeless...)

  8. Yes, I wonder how hopeless it is (even in Wittgenstein's opinion). If what is (supposedly) hopeless is providing proof or a foundation, then poetic expression won't help because it won't prove anything. But if he is talking about proof, why not say so? Why say, instead, that:

    "My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

    "This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science."

    Saying something about ethics isn't, surely, the same thing as providing a rational foundation or proof. But I think he means "saying something" in a sense that would not include poetic expression. He's talking about stating facts in (at least something like) a scientific way. It's interesting that he respects the desire to do this, since it seems so misguided. But I imagine he had in mind people like Kant and Aquinas rather than Sam Harris.

  9. I say a little about this (perhaps not enough) in the article that's forthcoming in Inquiry. (I think you've seen it.) If you look at the last line you quoted, "Ethics...can be no science," there's one reading of that on which this is a very old idea (think: Aristotle; of course, maybe LW would have had Aristotle in mind, too. And don't particularly see why he wouldn't have someone like Sam Harris in mind...).

    I think the answer to your question is that poetic expression is a running against the boundaries of language. That is, we can't just read straight sense off a poem (or other work of literature, e.g. Coetzee's novels). It might be worth thinking here of an issue taken up by Diamond, Cavell, and Hacking in Philosophy and Animal Life about whether philosophy can approach certain things (say, certain experiences) without "deflecting"--where, e.g., seeking a naturalistic reduction of, say, the experiences of wonder, safety, or guilt, would involve a kind of deflection. (If you haven't looked at that little book, I highly recommend it. I think you will get a lot out of it.)

  10. Thanks, Matthew. I'll have to re-read your paper. I'm pretty sure I've read it, but I don't remember well what you say there. I am halfway through reading Philosophy and Animal Life right now.

    I completely agree about poetic expression being a running against the boundaries of language. This might be a misleading way to put the point ("language is not, after all, a cage"), but the point is a good one nevertheless.

    Perhaps I'm just not being very nice about Sam Harris, but I don't think Wittgenstein would have approved of his work. When he says that:
    "My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. [...] But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it," I doubt that what he respects deeply is the kind of project that Harris is involved in. Aristotle might be all right though.

  11. Matthew, having looked again at your paper I realize that I have read it twice before but still need to read it again to fix it all in my memory. It says a lot of things I wish I'd said.

  12. That still makes it sound as though your paper is somehow forgettable. It's my memory that's the problem, not your paper.