Wittgensteinian views of religious language
December 7, 2010 — 11:12

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , ,   Comments: 36

Wittgensteinians lay stress on the idea that

  1. One cannot understand central worldview concepts without living as part of a community that operates with these concepts.

The non-Christian cannot understand the Christian concept of the Trinity; the Christian and the atheist cannot understand the Jewish concept of God’s absolute unity as understood by Maimonedes; the theist cannot understand the concept of a completely natural world; and the non-Fascist cannot understand the concept of the Volk. It is only by being a part of a community in which these concepts are alive that one gains an understanding of them.

Often, a corollary is drawn from this, that while internal critique or justification of a worldview tradition such as Christianity, naturalism or Nazism is possible, no external critique or justification is possible. In fact, there is an argument for this corollary.

  1. (Premise) One’s evidence set cannot involve any propositions that involve concepts one does not understand.
  2. (Premise) Necessarily, if a proposition p uses a concept C, and a body of propositions P is evidence for or against p for an agent x, then some member of P involves C.
  3. If x is not a member of the community operating with a central worldview concept C, then x does not have any evidence for or against any proposition involving C. (1-3)
  4. (Premise) External critique or justification of a worldview of a community is possible only if someone who is not a member of the community can have evidence for or against a proposition involving a central worldview concept of that community.
  5. Therefore, external critique or justification of a worldview of a community is not possible. (4 and 5)

This is a particularly unfortunate result in the case of something like Nazism, and may suggest an unacceptable relativism.

The argument is valid but unsound, and I think unsalvageable. I think that (5) is false, and on some plausible interpretations of (1), (2) and (3) are false as well.

First of all, people successfully reason with scientific concepts that they do not understand, like the concept of a virus or of gravity. They inherit the concept from a scientic community that they are not a member of, and while they do not understands the concept, they get enough about the inferential connections involving the concept that the concept should become useful. Thus, even if I do not really understand the concept of a virus, my evidence set can include facts about viruses that I know by virtue of testimony[note 1], and inferential connections with other facts, such as that if x has the common cold, then many viruses are present in x‘s body. Thus, (2) is false.

As for (3), I don’t know for sure if it’s false, but seems quite possible that while C does not occur in one’s evidence set, it might occur in one’s rules of inference. And there does not seem to be anything wrong with having a concept in one’s evidence set that one does not understand.

But perhaps you are not convinced by the critique of (2) and (3). I suspect this is because you take (1) to be more radical than I do. The “cannot understand” in (1) is understood as entailing “cannot operate with”–even the weak sort of grasp that the layperson has of scientific concepts is denied to non-members of a community in the case of central worldview concepts. On this interpretation of (1), (2) and (3) are false. I am inclined to think that this interpretation of (1) is the incorrect one because it renders (1) false. The central worldview concepts of a community do not seem to be significantly different from the central concepts of a scientific community. Still, I see the force of such a beefed-up (1), at least in the case of the concepts of the Christian faith (not so much because of the need for community membership as such, but because of the need for grace to enlighten one’s understanding).

In any case, (5) is false on either understanding of (1). The reason is simple. To support or criticize a position, one does not need evidence for or against a position. One only needs evidence for or against the second order claim that the position is true. Often, this a distinction without much of a difference. I have evidence that

  1. there is life on Mars

if and only I have evidence that

  1. the proposition that there is life on Mars is true.

However, this is so only because in (8) I refer to the proposition under the description “that there is life on Mars.” But take a different case. I go to a mathematics lecture. Unfortunately, as I shortly discover, it’s in German. I sit through it uncomprehendingly. At the end of it, I turn to a friend who knows German and ask her what she thought. She is an expert in the field and says: “It was brilliant, and I checked that his central lemma is right.” I still don’t know what the speaker’s central lemma is, but I know that it is true. I do not have evidence for the lemma, and it could even be (say, if the talk is in a field of mathematics I don’t know anything about) that I don’t have the requisite concepts for grasping the lemma, but I have evidence that the lemma is true.

Likewise, it is possible to have evidence for and against the claim that the community’s central worldview propositions are true, without grasping these propositions and having evidence for or against them. For instance, while I may not be able to understand what the members of the community are saying in their internal critiques, but I may understand enough of the logical form of these critiques and of the responses to them to be able to make a judgment that the critiques are probably successful. Moreover, even if I do not understand some concept, I may grasp some metalinguistic facts such as that if x is a Gypsy, then x is not a part of anything in the extension of the term “the Volk“, or that if the only things that exists at w are the particles of current physics, and at w their only properties and relations are those of current physics, then w is in the extension of the term “completely natural”. Given such facts, I can gain arguments for or against the thesis that the central worldview claims of the community are true. Thus, (5) is false.

There is a hitch in my argument against (5). External evaluation of the community seems to require that while I have no grasp of particular central terms, I have some grasp of the larger grammar of sentences used by members of the community and I understand some of the non-central terms in their language. But what if I don’t? This could, of course, happen. The community could speak an entirely foreign language that I am incapable of parsing.

I can make two responses. The first is that (5) is a general claim about communities whose central worldview concepts I do not understand, and that general claim has been shown to be false. There could be some radical cases where the outsider’s lack of understanding is so complete that external critique or justification is impossible. But such cases do not in fact occur for us. Humans share basic structures of generative grammar and a large number of basic concepts due to a common environment.

The second response is that the behavior of members of the community can provide evidence for and against the correctness of their central ideas. If their airplanes keep on crashing, there is good reason to think their scientific concepts are bad. If they lead a form of life that does not promote the central human goods, there is good reason to think that their ethics is mistaken, while if they lead a form of life that does promote the central human goods, there is good reason to their ethics is sound. Now, of course, I could be wrong. Maybe for religious reasons they want their airplanes to crash and design them for that. Maybe they abstain from some central human goods for the sake of some God-revealed higher good. Maybe they are a bunch of hypocrites, and they aren’t really achieving the central human goods. However, such possibilities only show that I cannot be certain in my external evaluation. But the claim that external justification and critique is possible is not the claim that one can achieve certainty in external justification and critique. What I’ve said shows we can achieve high probability even in cases where the community’s language is radically not understandable.

Things might be different if we’re dealing with an alien species of intelligent beings. But I suspect we could still come to probabilistic judgments, just somewhat less confident ones.

I think the above considerations not only show that the argument (1)-(6) fails, but that we’re unlikely to get any successful argument along those lines.

  • Thomas D. Carroll

    Why should we accept that (1) represents a Wittgensteinian view? Many Wittgensteinian philosophers seem to reject the relativism that also seems to be the target of your critique.

    December 7, 2010 — 11:49
  • I think (1) is justified by thoughts along the lines of the private language argument, and (1) is a standard part of views of Wittgensteinians like D. Z. Phillips.
    It is true that some Wittgensteinians reject (6). Good for them.
    I actually find claims like those in (1) plausible in some cases. But I don’t want (6).

    December 7, 2010 — 12:07
  • Nick M

    Hi Alex,
    I did my undergraduate thesis on this. Glad to see that it is getting some attention. What you generalize as “the Wittgensteinian view,” I’m going to call the fidest view. This is because, that’s what the view you have articulated here is, and there many that think fidest views are the result of an incorrect interpretation of Wittgenstein (I’m one of them. Interestingly enough, D.Z. Phillips always denied being a fidest. Which means he was either confused or what he wrote was astonishingly obscure).
    I think there is a problem in your characterization of the fidest view in your argument against (2). The fidest would not likely agree that a layman does not understand the concept of “gravity” or “virus” if the layman can employ the concept appropriately. Being able to employ the concept appropriately is a suffcient condition for understanding on most fidest and wittgensteinian views. You seem to be driving at something like a *full understanding* in which one must be able to employ a concept in every context in which the concept would be sensible. As in, “I know (a) having a cold entails having a virus, but I don’t know that (b) having a virus entails having a microbe that places genetic material in living cells.” You seem to claim that my not knowing (b) means I don’t understand the concept virus. A fidest, especially one with wittgensteinian sympathies, would make no such claim. In fact, it seems strange to make such a claim at considering that most members of religious communities would be said to not understand difficult concepts like “The Trinity.”
    I think it may be important to push this point a little bit, since a crucial point will be what counts as a community in (1). In your formulation of (1), it seems clear that a community that employs or operates with certain world-view concepts need not take those concepts to be foundational. Consider Nazi Germany. This linguistic community certainly employed the concept of “the Volk.” Nazi’s took the term to be foundational. However there were plenty of people that were not Nazis in this linguistic community. So while non-nazis were not members of the nazi community, they were able to appropriately employ foundational world view concepts of the nazi community. So by (1) there must have been a larger community that both the nazi and the non-nazi belonged to. This is probably best thought of as a “linguistic community” in some sense of the term. Thus on a fidest view a non-nazi could criticize a nazi, so long as they can both properly employ the concept of the “Volk.” One could still think that the concept of the “Volk” is stupid even if she could employ it properly. Its not so obvious that being a naturalist and being a christian is exactly analogous to being a nazi and a non-nazi in Nazi germany, so the ultimate fidest conclusion could still be preserved (I disagree, of course. There really doesn’t seem to be a relevant difference between these two examples. This is one point that I think fidests get wrong.)
    I think your arguments against (3) and (5) are both right. Nice post.

    December 7, 2010 — 20:14
  • Thomas D. Carroll

    I guess I read the parts of _Philosophical Investigations_ on pain and the idea of a private language differently. If meanings are not private, then meanings are in some sense social in nature. I don’t see why from this one would infer that communities of language-users may be rationally cut-off from outsiders. If I am reading you right, then you seem to be suggesting this rendering of (1) in the sentences that immediately follow it. In short, I don’t see why a non-Christian couldn’t ask a Christian about the proper use of expressions referring to the Trinity and attempt to come to a clarification of that Christian’s language use. Eventually, if the non-Christian comes up with a good-enough model of the Christian’s usage, why not say the non-Christian understands expressions of the Trinity (i.e. if the non-Christian is able to avoid mistakes, knows how to “go on” in the relevant language-game)? These conversations might take a very long time (especially if the language use in question is particularly subtle or uncommon), but I don’t gather from Wittgenstein that clarificatory conversation would be impossible in cases where two interlocutors otherwise share a means of communication.
    In any case, I like the direction you take in your two responses (towards the bottom of the post). I also want to reject (6); I am just against viewing this argument (1)-(6) as Wittgensteinian (in the sense of being of Wittgenstein). Other philosophers inspired by Wittgenstein are sometimes called “Wittgensteinian” in the sense of taking his thought as a spring-board to their own reflection; that is another matter.
    I agree that Phillips did hold views, at least relatively early on, that are akin to (1); however, he tried to step back from that sort of characterization of Wittgensteinian philosophy of religion as early as 1971 (in “Religious Beliefs and Language-Games”). P.F. Bloemendaal’s book _Grammars of Faith_ (2006) has more to say on this point.

    December 7, 2010 — 21:02
  • ‘Other philosophers inspired by Wittgenstein are sometimes called “Wittgensteinian” in the sense of taking his thought as a spring-board to their own reflection; that is another matter.’
    That’s the sense of “Wittgensteinian” that I was employing.
    By the way, I’m told that Hauerwas accepts something like (1).
    ‘The fidest would not likely agree that a layman does not understand the concept of “gravity” or “virus” if the layman can employ the concept appropriately.’
    It’s hard to say if the layman counts as able to employ the concept appropriately. Suppose that I can use the word “triangle” only in regard to red triangle. It’s not that I misuse it in regard to non-red triangles. It’s just that I don’t know how to use the word–I can’t tell which blue objects are triangles and which aren’t, etc. I think there is a case to be made that I don’t actually have the concept of a triangle. The layperson is in a position like that.

    December 7, 2010 — 21:53
  • Nick M

    I found your response a little strange given that you say in the post the layman inherits the concept from a scientific community. Doesn’t that mean the person has the concept? If you’re saying this is the line the fidest should take, again, I highly doubt that they would want to. I think you are drawing smaller circles around what counts as a community than anyone with a wittgensteinian streak would want.
    “It’s not that I misuse it in regard to non-red triangles. It’s just that I don’t know how to use the word–I can’t tell which blue objects are triangles and which aren’t, etc. I think there is a case to be made that I don’t actually have the concept of a triangle. The layperson is in a position like that.”
    So the idea is that the layman doesn’t know how to use
    the word “virus?” That seems a bit strange to me. I guess you’re thinking of something like this, “The layman can use the word to talk about cold viruses, but does not know how to use the word to pick out other viruses, just like someone who uses the word “triangle to pick out only red triangles, but not blue ones.” If that’s the case, then it seems like the lay person is very much capable of distinguishing viruses and capable of learning how to differentiate. In your example above, if you really can’t pick out anything other than red triangles when you use the word “triangle” I would agree you neither understand nor have the concept of “triangle.” If you are, however, capable of learning further how to apply the word “triangle”, then it isn’t obvious to me that you don’t understand the word. For instance, let’s say I use the term “planet” to refer to the earth and mars correctly. However, I do not recognize that Saturn is a planet since it has rings. Are you really committed to saying that I don’t have the concept “planet” or understand the word, until you explain to me that planets can also be have rings?
    To be perfectly honest, having to accept that most everyday people with an average education don’t understand or have the concept of “virus,” even though they employ the word fine at the doctor’s office, is a tough pill to swallow just to take care of fideism. A further question: on your view, would you say that someone who could appropriately pick out triangles but did not know that the interior angles sum to 180 degrees understands the word or has the concept “triangle?”

    December 8, 2010 — 8:31
  • David Warwick

    “It is only by being a part of a community in which these concepts are alive that one gains an understanding of them.”
    First point: who is only the part of one community? There’s a link between religious belief and education, there’s a link between belief and geography, belief and race. If you are a white university-educated Catholic brought up in a farming community who married a Jew and works with African-Americans in a city in Alabama … well, which of those communities are you a ‘part of’?
    I think I’m sympathetic to a ‘softer’ version of the same conclusion, which is that a religious viewpoint is impossible to fully understand by an outsider, because the acceptance of a religious position is, by definition, not shared by those who don’t accept it.
    A necessary component *is* the acceptance of it as true. It’s perhaps the *only* necessary component. The recent Pew study that found atheists know more about religions than believers also found that over half of *Catholics* thought that Catholicism taught that the wafer only symbolically became the body of Christ. They clearly don’t ‘understand’ their religion, but they self-identify as accepting it as ‘true’.
    I think I *understand* the arguments Catholicism makes – to the Vatican’s credit, it’s not a mystery religion. If I *agreed* with them, it would be … difficult to not be a Catholic. At best, I could be against God in a universe I accept to be a Catholic universe.
    Where I think this becomes obvious is where religious groups that are functionally identical clash. It’s almost a cliche now to point out that there are branches of American fundamentalism that want exactly the same things as Muslim fundamentalists, that fight the same battles against modernism, multiculturalism, internationalism, homosexuality, abortion, moral relativism, interfaith dialogue, evolution. They also tend to be insular, to set themselves against the ‘mainstream’. They deliberately engineer the tribalism Wittgenstein is talking about.
    It’s obvious *politically* and *geographically* why the two groups are mortal enemies, rather than fellow travelers. But in Wittgenstein’s terms shouldn’t they *understand* each other better?

    December 8, 2010 — 9:25
  • Remember that my argument against (2) is premised on a particular way of understanding the “understand” in (1).
    Maybe I could make it a dilemma. Either the average person who has inherited the word “virus” from the scientific community understands the concept or not.
    If she does understand the concept, then (1) is false. For in exactly the same way, the interreligiously sensitive Muslim can inherit the concept of “Trinity” from the Christian community.
    If she does not understand the concept, then (2) is false.
    As for what I think, I am tempted to distinguish the weak kind of having of a concept, which is the minimum needed for having doxastic attitudes towards propositions involving the concept, from the understanding of the concept. The latter may be something that comes by degrees, but there still may be clear cases. Suppose I hear Elbonians use the word “xyzzy”, and when I look it up in a dictionary, it says “xyzzy, intransitive verb”, and the rest of the page is ripped out. I think I now have the minimum needed for doxastic attitudes. Thus, if someone whom I think authoritative says a sentence in which I understand every word but “xyzzy”, I can believe what she says. But I don’t have any understanding of the word (or its associated concept), beyond the fact that it’s a predicate and unary in its surface grammar. That’s one extreme. Closer to the other extreme is the understanding of the concept of regular covering, which I stipulatively introduced in this paper, at the time at which I wrote the paper. So there are clear cases of not understanding and clear cases of understanding a concept, and both extremes are compatible with having doxastic attitudes to propositions involving the concept.

    December 8, 2010 — 9:31
  • I wonder if Cornelius Van Til was influenced by Wittgenstein?

    December 8, 2010 — 9:47
  • Heath White

    For the weak/strong senses of “having a concept” or “understanding”, I think the poles are (i) being able to parse sentences that have the word in them, and (ii) having maximal inferential and referential facility with the word. The first is a necessary condition of the second, but of course there is a wide, vague spectrum in between.

    December 8, 2010 — 9:59
  • Mr. Warwick:
    I take it that we are each a member of a number of overlapping communities. For instance, I am a member of the Christian community and the mathematical community. The concept of a set is a central concept to the mathematical community, but not the Christian community, while the concept of the Trinity is central to the Christian community, but not the mathematical community (though of course it is central to the individual lives of a number of persons who are also members of the mathematical community).
    In general it is not true that one can only understand a viewpoint if one accepts it.
    “The recent Pew study that found atheists know more about religions than believers also found that over half of *Catholics* thought that Catholicism taught that the wafer only symbolically became the body of Christ.”
    Atheists are unlikely to confuse their own beliefs with the teaching of the Catholic Church; but it is easy for Catholics to fall into such a confusion.
    But the point is well-taken, and is evidence against (1).

    December 8, 2010 — 14:48
  • Heath:
    I do not think it is necessary to be able to parse sentences using the word for the minimal grasp. For instance, imagine that you know no Arabic except for one predicate. That predicate has been introduced to you by a number of striking examples of entities that fall under that predicate. None of the language you know have a predicate that captures the same concept. I think you have a minimal grasp of the relevant concept, even though you cannot parse any sentences using that predicate. (I suppose you could extend English to include that predicate as a loanword, and then you could parse those English sentences. But suppose it doesn’t occur to you to do that.)

    December 8, 2010 — 14:53
  • David Warwick

    “In general it is not true that one can only understand a viewpoint if one accepts it.”
    Indeed not, I can just see a difference in religious knowledge.
    I admit I don’t know all that much about viruses. If I studied, read up on them and so on, I think I could come to understand them.
    I *have* studied and read up on Christianity. I’m pretty good on the letter of it. I’m hopeless at the spirit of it. I think the emotional investment – the leap of faith, whatever – is *part* of the knowledge. When churches tell us to ‘know Christ’, it doesn’t mean ‘know that his great-grandfather was called Matthan’.
    I don’t think you need to be a virus to ‘know about viruses’. I don’t think the process of becoming a Christian is the same as that of becoming a virologist. I do think you need to be a Christian to ‘know Christ’.

    December 9, 2010 — 11:58
  • David Warwick

    Perhaps a better example:
    “The miracles of Jesus Christ proved that whatever He said was true, and that when He declared Himself to be the Son of God He really was what He claimed to be.”
    I understand the definitions of those words and their grammatical structure. I understand the argument the author is making. The concepts are not hard to grasp.
    Now, I can say the same about …
    “His immense strength and ability to leap over tall buildings proved that Superman truly was the Last Son of Krypton”
    Linguistically, the two sentences are very similar. As an atheist/post-theist, I think they’re equally ‘true’.
    That assertion may seem idiotic, glib, provocative or offensive to a Christian … *that’s* the gulf Wittgenstein is talking about.
    To a Christian, the ‘understanding’ is a meta one: the understanding that the first statement is true. It’s not that I’m merely ‘not understanding’, I am actively ‘misunderstanding’ by not accepting the first sentence as true.
    In this specific example the ‘acceptance’ and the ‘understanding’ can’t be decoupled. It’s the difference between someone knowing what it must be like and someone knowing what it’s like.

    December 9, 2010 — 13:29
  • I agree in religious cases there is some truth to (1), and that’s why I think it’s important to block the inference from (1) to (6).
    The suggestion that there are certain propositions that can only be understood by those who accept them is quite intriguing and really interesting. Thanks for the suggestion! Self-evident propositions like that each thing is identical with itself may have this property as well. If you don’t agree that each thing is identical with itself, then you really don’t get what the claim says.
    I am not saying religious beliefs are self-evident. There may be a different reason why religious beliefs are like that. Maybe certain concepts cannot be had without certain emotions, and the emotions cannot be had without your engaging in certain judgments, and the judgments involve these concepts. (This is circular, but maybe it all happens at once in an interrelated way?)
    Still, maybe someone who used to accept some religious concept can still understand it? I am not sure. I sometimes feel that people who have left a religious tradition have lost some of their understanding of that tradition (a claim which does not imply that they were wrong to leave).

    December 9, 2010 — 14:35
  • David Warwick

    “This is circular”
    Which is interesting, because ‘each thing is identical with itself’ is sort-of-circular, as is ‘the miracles of Jesus Christ proved that whatever He said was true, He was the son of God’ (it’s circular as a sentence, at least, it’s effectively ‘only God has the powers of God’).
    There are clearly ‘self evident’ things which are false: ‘the Sun goes round the Earth’, say. There would certainly seem to be ones that are true. And clearly some of them are, or have been, battleground states: ‘all men are created equal’, ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’, ‘the universe had a first cause’.
    I was never religious, so I can’t speak to your last point. People who gave up their faith, or indeed converted to another, often seem to formulate it as ‘and the more I thought about it / learned / looked at the world, the less I believed in it’, though.

    December 9, 2010 — 16:11
  • Enigman

    One cannot understand central worldview concepts without living as part of a community that operates with these concepts.
    Accepting this means accepting, not just that, for example, to understand the core concepts of Christianity one must be a Christian, but that the same is true of all communities, or rather, all central worldview concepts. What of such central concepts as the Euclidean phenomenal space around us, within which all human communities on Earth have found themselves? Surely such a concept might be innate. So one might, in theoretical possibility, understand such a concept just by being born into a roughly Euclidean space and living there for a while (thinking about one’s place in the world), even were one’s community a nest of robots, with digital programming. Nevertheless, it might be objected that one would still be part of the community of humanity (or God’s family), and so would be living (all but alone) as part of that community.
    external critique or justification of a worldview of a community is not possible
    This is true in a similarly trivial way. E.g. suppose we see aliens (through a telescope) torturing their children, apparently for fun. Are they really torturing their children, or are they educating or even pleasing them? And of course, how could we know it was just for fun?

    December 10, 2010 — 6:03
  • David Warwick

    “Nevertheless, it might be objected that one would still be part of the community of humanity (or God’s family”
    I think the point that we’re part of a community of primates, mammals, land animals and so on is a good one. It’s David Attenborough’s point about gorillas – they must see the world as we do, to at least some extent, being the same size, having the same body plan.
    The ‘God’s Family’ thing is interesting, because atheists are often told everyone has a sense of the divine, we just misidentify it.
    I don’t think this is true – I think belief in Gods has been *near* universal, but plainly not belief in the *same* gods. The people of the classical period believed in a hall full of capricious, squabbling gods. Even allowing for Zeus, it’s clearly not the same as monotheism and the worldview that entails. If you look at some of the high Victorian attempts to explain away how the Romans could be so civilized and be polytheists, it’s clear they’re not ‘part of the community’.
    I think we have the innate belief that things ought to make sense, and I can see how you can get to ‘underwriting the universe, making it sensible, is God’. I don’t think that a sense of underlying order is a sense of the divine.

    December 10, 2010 — 15:40
  • Michael Rodgers

    D.Z. Phillips does not hold to #1, has never said anything like #1, and repeatedly says explicitly that he does not know of anyone who has ever held to #1.
    Take a look at the volume “Wittgensteinian Fideism?” co-authored by Nielsen and Phillips.

    December 11, 2010 — 18:05
  • Ed G

    #1 is absolutely wrong. This misunderstanding has gained ground as if by magic. There is no basis for this statement, except to make of Wittgenstein an easier mark.

    December 11, 2010 — 18:27
  • I guess Wittgenstein and Phillips need not have been Wittgensteinians in my sense, just like it now appears that Nestorius may not have been a Nestorian. 🙂
    As for Phillips, I just looked at “Philosophy, Theology and the Reality of God” (it’s been a long, long time since I’ve looked at Phillips), and indeed he does not endorse (1). But he endorses a certain weaker version of (1), that while one need not live as a member of the community, one needs to see things from the inside to have the concepts: “the rebel has knelt in the church even if he has not prayed. He has taken the sacrament of Communion even if he has not communed.”
    Corresponding to the weaker version of (1), there is a weaker version of (6) that I think Phillips does endorse: that one cannot have a strictly external critique of a religion, a critique that does not presuppose a seeing from the inside. And I think the arguments I give show that the weaker version of (6) does not follow from the weaker version of (1), and is likely to be false.
    Let me end by emphasizing that I actually think (1) is quite plausible in the case of the central Christian concepts. But (6) is false. So it’s important to me, even if it’s not important to Wittgenstein or Phillips, to show how one can have (1) without (6).

    December 11, 2010 — 21:25
  • Patrick Horn

    Dear Dr. Pruss,
    If you now realize that Phillips and Wittgenstein never held to (1), is it possible for you to edit your post so that it no longer says that “Wittgensteinians lay stress on the idea”? I don’t know of any Wittgensteinians that have said this. And there is so much widespread misinformation about the views of Phillips, I hate to see yet another distortion.
    What Wittgensteinians, such as Phillips and Winch, say is that if you want to understand a religious concept in a tradition or culture different from your own, you will need to pay very close attention to the role that concept plays in the community where it has its life.
    These same Wittgensteinians will also emphasize that understanding a religious concept does not make you a religious person. That’s a far cry from the notion that one must be a member of a religious community to understand its central concepts.
    Please do whatever is in your power to correct this misstatement.
    Thank you,
    Patrick Horn

    December 11, 2010 — 22:53
  • Patrick Horn

    Concerning 1), please read Wittgensteinain Fideism? (SCM Press, 2005). Phillips quotes here from his 1976 work, Religion Without Explanation:
    “The philosopher who wants to show what kind of belief religious belief is, or what kind of attitude atheism is, may have any of these attitudes or beliefs and still fufil his task. Indeed, he may not want to describe himself in any of these ways.” (p. 47 of WF? and p. 189 of RWE)
    Also, I am puzzled by the persistent insistence, such as Thomas Carroll makes above, that Phillips held something akin to (1) prior to 1971. There is no textual evidence to support this notion. On the contrary, the textual evidence shows that Phillips never held anything akin to (1).
    In Concept of Prayer, published in 1965 by Routledge Kegan and Paul, Phillips spends two pages contrasting the role of the shaman among the peoples of Northern Siberia with the role of the ancient Hebrew prophet (pp. 138-9 of the 1985 reprint by Seabury Press). That’s a very strange sort of thing to do for a philosopher who doesn’t think you can understand central religious concepts unless you live in the community in which those concepts are used.
    More explicitly, writing in a 1967 essay, “Moral and Religious Conceptions of Duty: An Analysis,” for a collection that he edited (Religion and Understanding (St. Martin’s Press):
    “I am anxious to avoid a position in which religious language seems to be a special language cut off from other forms of human discourse. Religion would not have the kind of importance that it has were it not connected with the rest of life. Religious discourse has much in common with moral discourse. The naked are clothed and the starving are fed whether the motive is moral or religious. Religion, in the form of prayer, can often help to resolve moral difficulties. More important is the fact that we say that the latter stages of a religion are deeper than the earlier stages; we say too that one person’s faith is deeper than the faith of another person. These judgments can be made by non-believers, which suggests that religious concepts are not inaccessible to non-religious understanding.”
    I don’t think that he could have more explicitly rejected the label of fideist, writing in 1967, if he had known that he was going to be accused of being a fideist in 1970.
    And yet, this label persists. It is a label that persists, apparently because it became a part of the philosophical mainstream. And its persistence has been aided by the widespread practice, like that above by Nick M, of general remarks using the label without any textual evidence to support the label. The evidence will not support the attachment of the fideist label to D.Z. Phillips.

    December 12, 2010 — 0:19
  • Patrick Horn

    Let’s consider whether Phillips held the view attributed to him by Pruss in this thread. Pruss admits that Phillips does not hold: (1) One cannot understand central worldview concepts without living as part of a community that operates with these concepts.
    But Pruss insists that Phillips endorses a weaker version of (1): that while one need not live as a member of the community, one needs to see things from the inside to have the concepts.
    But is this indeed a weaker version of (1)? How much weaker is “needs to see things from the inside” than “live as a member of the community”? Does Pruss mean by “needs to see things from the inside” that one must have been a member of the community at some point? Or does he mean that one must be able to see what the concepts are for those who use them? This is how Phillips puts in the 1963 essay, “Philosophy, Theology and the Reality of God” (one of the first ever published by Phillips), quoted by Pruss: “[the rebel] can see what religion is supposed to do and what it is supposed to be.”
    One interpretation of the “weaker version,” and the view that was in fact Phillips view throughout his career, would thus make the version so weak as not to be a version of (1) at all: namely, to be able to see what the concepts are supposed to mean for those members of the community of which he does NOT live as a part.
    There simply is no textual evidence that Phillips ever held anything remotely resembling (1).

    December 12, 2010 — 2:13
  • I don’t know what “inside” means. It’s Phillips’ term: “He knows the story from the inside, but it is not a story that captivates him” (p. 350). I don’t think it implies having been a member. But “the rebel has knelt in the church even if he has not prayed” is puzzling if it does not imply some sort of participation in the life of the community, at least of an imaginary sort.
    I am not particularly interested in the question of who, if anyone, has held (1). (By the way, in the special case of the concept of the Trinity, a case can be made that Augustine held a version of (1).) I find (1) an interesting thesis.
    As for the term “Wittgensteinian”, Polish sausage is not particularly Polish, Nestorius and his followers may not have been Nestorians, it has been questioned whether Descartes was a Cartesian, and many Protestants think that the Orthodox Church is not orthodox. Words and phrases take on a life of their own, and “Wittgensteinian Fideism” has done that.
    Perhaps I should have talked of “Wittgensteinian fideist views” rather than “Wittgensteinian views”. But there is good reason for dropping “fideist” in connection with (1), namely that the brunt of my argument is that (1) does not imply the fideism of (6).
    So, here’s how to situate my argument in the history of the last fifty years of philosophy of religion. One kind of defense of the views of heavily Wittgenstein-influenced philosophers of religion like Phillips is that they don’t hold to (1) and hence aren’t fideists (as the SEP notes, “fideism” is a rarely self-applied word–it’s surely an insult word). But a different kind of defense is what I’ve done: even if the philosopher accepts (1), that’s not a problem, because one can consistently accept (1) without accepting (6), and it is (6) that is fideistic, not (1).

    December 12, 2010 — 9:45
  • Michael Rodgers

    Pruss, I think on this point, Phillips and other Wittgensteinians would be in firm agreement with you. That is, whatever else Phillips means, he agrees that critique of traditions other than your own is possible.

    December 12, 2010 — 10:02
  • Thomas D. Carroll

    I just want to add a note regarding my take on Phillips in response to Patrick Horn’s comments, comments with which I share broad agreement. I base my reading on Phillips’ own statement in the opening paragraph of “Religious Beliefs and Language-Games” (1970):
    “Recently, many philosophers of religion have protested against the philosophical assertion that religious beliefs must be recognized as distinctive language-games. They feel that such an assertion gives them the misleading impression that these language-games are cut off from all others…I write this paper as one who has talked of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games, but also as one who has come to feel misgivings in some respects about doing so.”
    I don’t know precisely what Phillips had in mind by this remark, but I would be glad to know exactly what he was referring to in his own work. In any case, I would certainly not want to interpret this remark as saying that the best characterization of Phillips’ early work has him thinking of religions as distinctive language-games; yet, I also think it right to take account of remarks like this in assessing Phillips’ early philosophical development.
    I think I wrote too brusquely in saying Phillips’ views were “akin” to (1); I’d like to rephrase my point. If one were to hold that religions were distinctive language-games and if “distinctive” were to mean “autonomous”, then it seems to me that the view (1) would follow. So, I was not arguing that (1) ought to be interpreted as Phillips’ early view, but instead, I am arguing that there is textual evidence to support the view that an idea close to (1) was held by Phillips during his early philosophical career. My use of the word “akin” invited associations of some sort of essential connection between Phillips’ early views and (1), and I do not want to convey that. In any case, this is my interpretation of the self-reflective remark in “Religious Beliefs and Language-Games.” If there is a better interpretation of that remark, I’d be glad to know of it.
    That said, I consider it very unfortunate not only that the debate over Wittgensteinian fideism remains a key area of discussion of Wittgenstein and philosophy of religion, but also of Phillips’ philosophy of religion. There are numerous rich elements in Phillips’ body of work that deserve greater appreciation by the philosophical community. I, for one, would like to see even more development and analysis of his notion of “contemplative philosophy”.

    December 12, 2010 — 11:45
  • Patrick Horn

    There are some very important philosophical questions to put here:
    a) Should one continue to use a philosophical label that has never been substantiated? This question is, at least in part, a moral question concerning how we conduct philosophical discourse. If there is no textual evidence that any Wittgensteinian ever defended fideism, then how can we responsibly continue to use the label? It is one thing to say that words take on a life of their own, a remark that is thoroughly appreciated by Wittgensteinians; it is quite another thing to attempt a moral justification of a straw man argument by saying that words have a life of their own. When one speaks of Polish sausage, Nestorians, Descartes, and the Orthodox Church, one is not necessarily engaged in straw man arguments.
    I hate to sound moralistic here but it seems to be a rather crucial point in any philosophical discourse. Pruss is by no means alone in this practice. There is a disturbingly long history of applying this label to Phillips, withdrawing its application to Phillips when confronted, and then insisting that one’s criticisms of the label are justified even if the label doesn’t fit a particular philosopher. But if one wants to defend a particular view, is it necessary to make a straw man argument to do so?
    b) Following a), should one put forth a thesis containing concepts that one does not understand? Pruss argued: Phillips held that “one needs to see things from the inside to have the concepts.” When confronted about the meaning of this phrase, Pruss admitted that he did not know what “inside” means in this case.
    Again, I have no desire to make moralistic statements concerning philosophical discourse but there is no other avenue for criticizing an argument of this sort. Isn’t it best not to criticize views that one does not understand?
    But I am also puzzled as to why Pruss does not understand “inside” in this case. The passage in question is the last paragraph of Phillips’ 1963 essay, “Philosophy, Theology, and the Reality of God.” Phillips is responding to the concern that his view has “guaranteed that any possible answer [to the question of the truth of a religion] is favorable to religion.” He writes: “To say that the criteria of truth and falsity in religion are to be found within a religious tradition is to say nothing of the truth or falsity of the religion. On the contrary, my thesis is as necessary in explaining unbelief as it is in explaining belief.” (p. 8 in Wittgenstein and Religion (St. Martin’s Press, 1993). Phillips provides the example of the rebel to help make this point. In this context, Phillips writes, “[The rebel] knows the story from the inside.” He does not say that everyone must be a rebel, must have once held a view, in order to criticize a view that they do not hold. On the contrary, in contrast to the example of the rebel who “stands on the threshold of religion,” Phillips writes in this same paragraph: “At times we stand afar off saying, ‘I wish I could be like that.’ We are not like that but we know what it must be like.”
    “Inside” is clearly used here to indicate that the rebel rejects what he once participated in. It does not follow from this that Phillips thinks that it is necessary to be an insider, or even to see from the inside, in order to understand the concepts of a community. The example of a rebel is a particular example used by Phillips to respond to the criticism that his view guarantees a favorable answer to the question of the truth of religion. He is not responding to the question of whether one must be an insider in order to offer a critique of religion.
    All of this leads to a further point in the long history of labeling Phillips as a Wittgensteinian fideist. Phillips published 130 essays and 23 books after this essay published in 1963. How is it that a man’s 43-year career can be summed up in an example that he gave in the first year by another man who admits that he does not even understand a central concept in the example? I wish that Pruss were alone in this practice. Unfortunately, these accounts of Phillips are the norm and Pruss’s post and responses are standard operating procedure in mainstream philosophy of religion.
    c) Did Phillips hold a weaker version of (6), as maintained by Pruss: “one cannot have a strictly external critique of a religion, a critique that does not presuppose a seeing from the inside.” Again, there is no textual evidence to suggest that he did. Pruss is confusing Phillips’ epistemological point, “that the criteria of intelligibility in religious matters are to be found within religion,” with the numerous religious and moral points of view that could serve as the basis for an external critique of any other religious and moral point of view.
    Phillips and other Wittgensteinians are making a simple logical point: One cannot offer an external critique of a religion if one does not understand the object of one’s critique. Understanding the object of one’s critique requires careful attention to the object. But careful attention does not equal appropriation. As Phillips says in this same paragraph published in 1963: “Obviously, [the rebel] does not see the point of religion as the believer does, since for the believer seeing the point of religion is believing.” An external critique logically requires a simple distinction between what one understands and what one lives.

    December 12, 2010 — 12:40
  • “Phillips and other Wittgensteinians are making a simple logical point: One cannot offer an external critique of a religion if one does not understand the object of one’s critique.”
    That’s all I really need to make my points be relevant to their view. The case of the German-language mathematics lecture in my post shows that it is possible to give an external apologetics for a view even if one does not understand the object of one’s apologetics, and a very similar case where one’s friend who understands German and is an expert in the field tells one that it was all garbage shows that it is possible to give an external critique of a view even if one does not understand the view.
    But really, it matters little to me whose view (1) is and what we call it. It’s a view that I find both interesting and fairly compelling. I understand that it’s annoying to have attributed to one a view that one does not share, even if the attributor finds the view interesting and compelling. I can’t change my post, because it is now a part of this debate and I think it is important that records of debates be preserved, but if I were writing it now, I would use some phrase like “a so-called Wittgensteinian view”.

    December 12, 2010 — 13:37
  • David Warwick

    “And there is so much widespread misinformation about the views of Phillips, I hate to see yet another distortion.”
    I imagine that unless we’re members of the Wittgensteinian community, we can’t appreciate how frustrating that must be.

    December 12, 2010 — 14:09
  • Patrick Horn

    Dear Thomas D. Carroll,
    That is indeed a fair point. Phillips spoke of sharing some of the misgivings in speaking of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games. In the first two sections of this essay, “Religious Beliefs and Language Games,” he discusses the misgivings of others that he does NOT share, namely, 1) that such talk should be rejected because it does not allow for the justification of belief that is needed and 2) that such talk should be rejected because it does not allow for a common criteria of rationality shared by both believers and non-believers.
    In the third section he discusses the misgivings that he does share. These misgivings are expressed most thoroughly by his own teacher, Rush Rhees, in a paper that has been published in several collections but originally in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1959-60), as “Wittgenstein’s Builders.” As applied to philosophy of religion, Phillips writes, “What I am saying is that the importance of religion in people’s lives cannot be understood simply by distinguishing between religion and other modes of social life, although, as we have seen, there are important distinctions to be made in this way.” The extent to which Phillips’ own talk of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games suggested that one need only to look at the internal rules of belief in order to understand the importance of religion in people’s lives, the misgivings were justified. Such a suggestion implies that religious language-games could be the ONLY language-games played, constituting a whole language, which is difficult to make sense of.
    But actually Phillips does not engage in frequent talk of religious beliefs as language games prior to 1971. There are only a couple of references (Concept of Prayer, p. 18 and another passing reference in Death and Immortality that I cannot find at the moment).
    Though he does not mention H.O. Mounce in “Religious Beilefs and Language-Games,” he does mention, in footnote 26 of the version of this essay published in Wittgenstein and Religion, a subsequent chapter of this collection. In this chapter, “Wittgenstein’s Full Stop,” he discusses and criticizes Mounce’s use of the language-game analogy (82-6). The criticism here concerns the notion put forward by Mounce that “the sense of any language game cannot itself be questioned” (“Understanding a Primitive Society,” Philosophy, vol. 48 (1973) p. 349). Phillips responds that in fact people DO question the sense of religious beliefs and practices.
    These remarks lead me to think that Phillips had identified in his own views a tendency that he later explicitly rejected. Though he never explicitly wrote in support of this tendency, I think he has in mind some tendencies in Concept of Prayer (his first published book) and Moral Practices (his second published book), which he co-authored with Mounce. There is a subtle tendency in these works, as in the early writings of Winch, to suggest that the internal rules of a religious belief might of themselves lead one to understand the importance of the belief for the believers. Both Phillips and Winch, under the influence of Rhees, came to see that this use of the language-game analogy fails. In order to see the importance of belief, one would need to see the significance of the relation between the belief and the whole of the believer’s life.
    It is important, however, to see the difference between this tendency and fideism. Fideism is the view that religious belief is a mode of human experience that is in some sense independent of reason or rationality. The tendency which Phillips rejected is the view that the internal rules of religious beliefs have a rationality that can be understood independently of the rest of the believer’s life. Thus even the tendency which he later rejected is not a form of fideism.
    For further reference, you may be interested in the several works by Rush Rhees that Phillips compiled and edited in his last years, particularly Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse (Cambridge, 1998). You might also be interested to know that the British Wittgenstein Society will be holding a conference in Wales in July on Wittgenstein and the Swansea School: http://www.editor.net/BWS/events/conference.html.
    Thank you for your thoughtful remarks.

    December 12, 2010 — 18:54
  • Patrick Horn

    Dear Dr. Pruss,
    If you tried to offer a critique of a mathematical paper that you did not understand on the basis of the opinion of an expert in the field, why would you not be guilty of plagiarism precisely because you had NOT offered a critique of the mathematical paper?
    Further, even if we allowed that this plagiarized critique is a critique, would it not be a critique dependent upon understanding? In other words, can’t I simply remove the pronouns to render the logical point as follows: in order for there to be an external critique of religion, there must be an understanding of the object of critique?

    December 12, 2010 — 22:15
  • Relying on authority with due acknowledgment is not plagiarism. We rely on the authority of others in much of our epistemic life.
    Suppose nobody understands any of the central claims of a religion, not even those who practice the religion. Surely that is a powerful criticism. But one can externally (fallibly, of course) tell if members of a community have understanding, for instance by observing what happens when they try to explain the concepts to one another.
    What about a case where only people in a community understand, and nobody outside the community understands? Then external critique and apologetics is possible for the reasons given in my post. Here’s a simple case. Someone whom I have reason to think is as knowledgeable as anybody in the community tells me that their central doctrines logically entail some proposition p, where p is some empirically testable proposition that does not involve any concepts specific to that religion. I empirically test p, and it fails.
    So, understanding isn’t a prerequisite for critique.

    December 13, 2010 — 9:14
  • Thomas D. Carroll

    Dear Patrick Horn,
    Thank you very much for your take on that remark. Your thoughts look to be quite helpful in getting a sense of Phillips’ development in connection with other philosophers of the “Swansea School”. Thanks, too, for the reference to the BWS conference next summer; it looks like a great schedule of speakers. I’ll look forward to their appearing someday in Philosophical Investigations…
    As for “fideism”, I have a lot I could say on the topic. In short, my view is that because the term has a long history of pejorative use, it is not likely to be helpful in developing charitable interpretations of philosophers or theologians. (I think there are exceptions to this, but scholars using the term should use great care if they want to avoid introducing confusion.) Your point about the distance between the idea of fideism and what Phillips accepts/rejects (especially in connection the influence of Rhees) is also illuminating.

    December 13, 2010 — 19:28
  • Patrick Horn

    “Offering a critique” is not the same as relying on authority. Of course we make judgments all of the time on the authority of others but we do so with accepted standards for what constitutes a fair judgment. And the fairness of the judgment depends heavily upon whether the authority is believed to understand the object of the critique. It is ludicrous to suggest that a critique can legitimately be made without any condition of understanding the object of the critique.
    It’s nonsense to suggest a religion of which nobody understands the central claims. How would one confirm this? What are these claims that no one understands? How would we even know that they were claims? Your suggestion sounds like obfuscation for no purpose.
    As far as I know, we’ve never encountered a people about whom no one outside the community understands anything about. The closest example that I can think of are the Piraha people, a remote Amazonian tribe, but even they have had their language translated and have engaged in rational exchanges with outsiders.
    I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t make judgments and offer critiques without understanding. But what is offered fails as a critique of the object if it does not include an understanding of the object. What was thought to be a judgment or a critique is simply a demonstration of a lack of understanding. No real critique was offered.
    I also do not mean to suggest that outsiders cannot make a genuine critique. It is because we understand the intents and purposes of Nazis all too well that a critique of their practices carries the weight that it does. This is not understanding as sympathy, this is clarity about what people mean in their words and actions.

    December 15, 2010 — 18:38
  • I take that to offer evidence against a view is to offer a critique. At least, that’s the meaning of “critique” relevant to fideism. I take “critique” in this sense to be just the flip side of “apologetics”. And so an argument from authority is perfectly fine as a critique of a view. We rely on such arguments from authority all the time in the sciences.
    “It’s nonsense to suggest a religion of which nobody understands the central claims. How would one confirm this? What are these claims that no one understands? How would we even know that they were claims? Your suggestion sounds like obfuscation for no purpose.”
    In my suggestion, I was taking “claims” in a weak sense, as attempted claims. Sometimes–and this is a very Wittgensteinian idea–people attempt to make a claim, but they end up making nonsensical noises (which may have some surface-grammatical resemblance to meaningful noises). We sometimes see such things in student papers. Such attempted claims are not understood by anyone, because there is nothing there to be understood. Could there be a religion centered on such attempted claims? I don’t see why not. Is there actually any such religion? I have no idea.
    Question: How would we know that these are attempted claims, rather than just tralala type songs, say? Answer: From the surface grammar and the role of these claims in the community’s practices. One can tell that someone is ineffectually trying to make a claim just as one can tell that someone is ineffectually trying to sharpen a knife. In both cases, of course, there are other hypotheses available–maybe the person is trying to utter nonsense and maybe the person is trying to blunt the knife with a sharpening stone–but these hypotheses will often be less plausible than the hypothesis that the person is attempting to make a claim or attempting to sharpen a knife.

    December 15, 2010 — 21:03