Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics

New Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology

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Mikel Burley
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The majority of the essays in Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics: New Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology, edited by Mikel Burley, were compiled from contributions to the Eighth British Wittgenstein Society Annual Conference in 2016. Their variety and insight showcase just how relevant Ludwig Wittgenstein remains for contemporary discussions in philosophy and theology by addressing a wide array of contemporary discussions—from ethics and math to Christology. Despite the diversity of subjects, the chapters often address questions raised within another chapter, and frequently engage with the writings of the other authors. This overlap develops several meta-discussions across the various chapters and immerses the reader in these contemporary dialogues in Wittgenstein studies. 

The volume opens with an essay by philosopher Chon Tejedor in which she explores a dispositional methodology to Wittgenstein’s writings. Although he is often grouped within the tradition of analytic philosophy, Wittgenstein’s aphoristic and dialectical style suggests that he is doing something more with his reader than simply proposing arguments. Drawing upon Wittgenstein’s early years as a mechanical engineer, Tejedor suggests one should approach the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a sort of machine that “aims to train our dispositions to speak and think away from particular forms of nonsense, and, in so doing, to alter our practical understanding of the position we occupy in the world” (23). Wittgenstein’s project does not work to merely change one’s particular beliefs within a given picture of the world, but also to alter one’s entire disposition to that world. Addressing a different element of Wittgenstein’s religious disposition, Mikel Burley’s own contribution attempts to clear up common misconceptions that Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning the distinctiveness of religious discourse (a theme further discussed in Michael Scott’s chapter) inevitably lead to either an unassailable fideism or an atheistic naturalism. Burley demonstrates that both fears are unfounded. What Wittgenstein is clarifying is a metaphysical reduction that assumes all psychological experiences must be based in some metaphysical reality. 

Elucidating a particular theological element of this distinction, Rowan Williams’ chapter brings Wittgenstein in conversation with Søren Kierkegaard to illustrate how the Christological formula generated at the historic Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) functions to govern the grammar of Christ by limiting what should to be said about the transcendent, and not simply stating facts about the world. This brings out an underlying apophaticism in Wittgenstein’s work and elucidates how religious language might be distinct from scientific language in its attempts to make statements about the transcendent. Michael Scott’s chapter contrasts this use of Wittgenstein by contemporary theologians with what he calls the “Face Value Theory” of religious language (RL) more commonly adopted by analytic philosophers of religion and which treats religious language as analogical in the same way that all common discourse may be literal or figurative. The collection continues with a conversation between Stephen Mulhall and Wayne Proudfoot about the Great Riddle in the medieval theologian Anselm and his famous statement in his Prosologium: “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Proudfoot argues that this statement does not contain any propositional content, instead functioning asa rule for what cannot be said of God (115). 

There are several unique and unexpected essays in this volume, including John Milbank’s critique of transcendence in Wittgenstein through his discussion on mathematics and logic, which is arguably the least accessible chapter in the volume, and the most explicit critique of Wittgenstein himself. Of additional interest are Sophie Chappell’s critique of the ethical Doctrine of Double Effect as well as Genia Schönbaumsfeld’s critique of theodicy. The latter challenges philosophy’s attempts to produce a theodicy on the basis that God is not a member of our moral community and thus should not be anthropomorphized as such. Also drawing on Kierkegaard, Schönbaumsfeld contrasts Wittgenstein’s detached wonder at existence with Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” who detaches from the world but then embraces it again in faith. Similarly applicable to discussions in ethics, Chappell’s essay questions the assumption in consequentialism that allows moral distinction for hidden intentions, for example, that someone could put a gun to someone else’s head, pull the trigger, and then argue that the intention was something other than killing that person. The vast majority of the time, she argues, intentions are public not private. One should not throw out the rule on account of its exceptions. As Wittgenstein says in Philosophical Investigations (Macmillan, 1953), “[l]ying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other” (249). It is general convention which elucidates one’s intentions through their observable and recognizable actions. Rather than posit conflicting hidden intentions to avoid breaking absolute moral prohibitions such as “it is always wrong to kill an innocent” (213), one should nuance such prohibitions with a caveat such as “where it is open to you not to” (213) while accepting the obvious and conventional connection between intentions and actions. This chapter stood out as the most valuable and general application of Wittgenstein’s theories. 

While this volume is especially relevant for those involved in Wittgenstein studies and the appropriation of his work, anyone interested in the relevant questions in philosophy, theology, and ethics will find these essays to be insightful and fruitful contributions to these fields. The dialogue produced throughout the volume is collegial, constructive, and collaborative. As this collection of essays was primarily generated from conference presentations, there is a presumed familiarity with the subject material addressed in each chapter, making some of the essays less accessible than others, yet this should not dissuade anyone from using this volume as a starting point to explore important contemporary applications of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Austin C. Kopack is a graduate student in Philosophy and Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds. His previous books include Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics (2016) and Contemplating Religious Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and D. Z. Phillips (2012). He is also a co-editor of Language, Ethics and Animal Life: Wittgenstein and Beyond (2012).



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