Logic and sin – Shields

Logic and Sin in the Writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Philip Shields

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  1. Just finished these books, _Logic and Sin in the Writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein_, by Philip R. Shields, and _Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View_, by Norman Malcolm, both publishes in 1993.

    These are two of many books on Wittgenstein and religion, several of which puzzle about a remark he once made to his former student and long-time friend, M. O’C Drury: “I am not a religious person but I can’t help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”

    Malcolm, a colleague and very close friend of Wittgenstein, aims to discuss “*not* strictly a religious point of view, but something *analogous* to a religious point of view” (his emphases).

    One very relevant theme in Wittgenstein’s writing that both Malcolm and Shields rely on is the notion that explanations, reasons, justifications, etc, must at some point, come to an end.

    To wit, in his _Philosophical Investigations_, the culmination of his later philosophy, Wittgenstein says, “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’” (PI #217). Indeed, one of the first remarks in PI is “explanations come to an end somewhere” (PI #1), which for me is reminiscent of the character Cleanthes in Hume’s _Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion_, in which Cleanthes and Philo argue about the design argument for the existence of God, and Philo makes the usual point that it fails in an infinite regress of causes, but Cleanthes counters that “I have found a Diety and here I stop my inquiry” (p. 32 in the Hackett 2nd ed.).

    In brief, Malcolm suggests four analogies between religion and philosophy for Wittgenstein (paraphrased from Winch’s critique of the book in the appendix):

    1) An analogy between his philosophy and religion in that both have a the particular above attitude towards explanation, viz, that it must come to an end somewhere.

    2) An analogy (closely related to the first) between a religious wonder at the world as it is and a kind of wonder in Wittgenstein’s philosophy at the existence of the various language-games as they are in our use. Both the world as it is and our language-games as we use them are simply there – you can use them and describe them but not *explain*, really, why they are there.

    3) An analogy between the religious, original-sin-type attitude of regarding oneself as imperfect or faulty, and the Wittgensteinian idea that philosophical puzzlement is a symptom of diseased or faulty thinking. “A philosopher treats a question: like an illness” (PI #255). “Our illness is this, to want to explain” (_Remarks on Foundations of Mathematics_, p 333).

    4) An analogy between Wittgenstein’s insistence that Christianity is not so much a doctrine but rather a changing of one’s life, amending one’s ways, etc (Wittgenstein would have agreed, Malcolm thinks, with St. James that “faith without works is dead), and the essential notion in his later philosophy that our everyday concepts rest on a base of acting and doing, rather than on reasoning or interpreting or explaining.

    Shields, by contrast, relies much more on the logic of Wittgenstein’s earlier philosophy (as the name of the book implies), from which Wittgenstein largely broke later, although Shields is right that threads continue in the later philosophy.

    There is story Bertrand Russell was fond of telling about Wittgenstein, when Wittgenstein was having an intense discussion with Russell, punctuated by long periods of intense silent thinking by Wittgenstein, and Russel finally asked him if he was thinking about logic or his sins and Wittgenstein replied “both.” Although usually told as a joke, this story has for Shields a deeper meaning and importance regarding the concept of sin (again, as suggested by his title).

    Shields starts, then, by focusing on the early-Wittgenstein notion of the distinction between what can be said and what can only by shown. One of the first lines of his first book, the _Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus _, is “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (TLP #7). Similarly, “What *can* be shown *cannot* be said” (his emphases, TLP #4.1212).

    As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains in other words, “what cannot be formulated in sayable (sensical) propositions can only be shown. This applies, for example, to the logical form of the world, the pictorial form, etc., which show themselves in the form of (contingent) propositions, in the symbolism, and in logical propositions. Even the unsayable (metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic) propositions of philosophy belong in this group—which Wittgenstein finally describes as “things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (TLP 6.522).”

    Although criticized by later scholars for relying too much on Wittgenstein’s early thought, Shields begins with this notion of the limits of language and thought, and then links the theme of limitation to the presence of the figure of God in Wittgenstein’s writings. In particular both this limitation and the will of God are similar in being out of our control.

    From here the notion of sin becomes important for Shields insofar as we sin when we try to transgress God’s will and we “sin” when we “try to say in words what can only be shown.” Finally, he uses Wittgenstein’s comment that (in the preface to one of his books), “I would like to say, ‘This book is written to the glory of God” (“but nowadays,” the preface goes on, “that would be chicanery, that is, it would not be rightly understood”). Shields here discusses the significance he sees of Wittgenstein’s efforts to replace our modern need to seek explanations with a sense of wonder an awe that is dedicated to describing, not explaining. Focusing on two aspects of a religious point of view – 1) recognizing that things are out of our control; and 2) embracing these realities without fatalism or resignation – Shields says that’s just what Wittgenstein’s philosophy calls for, viz, recognizing the say/show distinction and accepting these conditions “before we can do or say anything at all.”

    In short, Shields thinks that Wittgenstein’s writings are “fundamentally ‘religious,’” where as Malcolm sees them as more analogous (in the four above ways) to religion. Other scholars, such as Tim Labron, think that Shields misses the mark here, since he focuses too much on the earlier – largely rejected – thought of Wittgenstein, reducing his philosophy to the earlier thought, excessively associating logic with God and philosophical confusion with sin, and missing therefore the unique character of the later thought.

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