In The Beginning was the Deed: The Religiosity of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

by Samuel Hill
12th August 2016

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-English philosopher born April 26 1889, is indisputably one of the key philosophers of the 20th century, whose influence extends well beyond his own field. In theology, beyond the small contingent that explicitly acknowledge his influence, he is found in footnotes and the language of theologians from a broad spectrum: even the Catholic Theologian Bernard Lonergan would devote a few pages in his Method in Theology to address some of Wittgenstein’s ideas. Interestingly, it is his later ideas that would become so well known, whilst the only book he ever published would fade into obscurity. This isn’t too surprising, for he would later repudiate most of what he said in that book, leading a lot of theologians to simply pass it over. However, this is a mistake for two reasons; firstly, he wanted this book to be re-published alongside his later thought; and secondly, his view on theology cannot be properly understood without it.

This book is called the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus. First published in 1921, the Tractatus finds its home in the tradition of logical positivism popularised by the Vienna Circle of Britain, and perhaps best known by the works of mathematicians and logicians Gotleb Frege and Bertrand Russell. The Tractatus is not a modest book for whilst the author claims that his method may be fallible, the truths communicated in the text’s pages are definitive and unassailable. The problems of philosophy, in the author’s mind, have been finally solved in their essentials. The key failing of philosophy, as Wittgenstein sees it, is that philosophy tried to say that which can only be shown, and in doing so, ultimately became confused. With these problems now definitively solved, Wittgenstein leaves us with the depressing observation of just how little has been achieved.

The style of the Tractatus is austere and regimented, its form serving the purpose of expressing as clearly as possible the authors intention. There is little literary flourish, with each proposition (statement, assertion, opinion) listed in numerical form – 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 – with extrapolations of each following a strict hierarchy – 1.1, 1.111, 1.112 etc.  Through this form, a reductive vision of the future of philosophy is outlined, and best made explicit by one of the works closing propositions:

6.43        The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e the propositions of natural science, i.e something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him the he had given no meaning to the propositions.

A proposition is a string of words that follow the form ‘such and such is the case’. For example, ‘I am hungry’, ‘It is raining’, ‘You are a good friend’ are simple propositions, for they follow the above form and assert something. According the Wittgenstein, traditional philosophical propositions such as those of ethics (Killing is immoral), metaphysics (God is the ground of being), religion (God loves you), and aesthetics (Beauty is pure idea) are not false but nonsense, for their propositions do not have proper meaning. The propositions of logic and mathematics are also without proper meaning, but in a different sense – they are ‘senseless’- and they show us the necessary features of our language and/or world but cannot be said meaningfully. Religious propositions however, are simply nonsense.

A reading may incline one to think that Wittgenstein and the atheistically minded members of the famous Vienna Circle would be in agreement; Bertrand Russell was Wittgenstein’s mentor after all, and as Matthew Del Nevo has aptly described, Russell was positively allergic to religion. And yet when Russell penned the introduction to the work, Wittgenstein was dissatisfied with Russell’s assessment. When Moritz Schlick, a Vienna Circle member, assessed the Tractatus Wittgenstein expressed disbelief that someone as intelligent as Schlick could so misunderstand the fundamental conception of the book. Wittgenstein’s visits to the Vienna Circle did little to clear the confusion, as Wittgenstein would, at times, arrive and turn his back on the members, reading poetry from the Indian mystic Rabindranath Tagore. Regarding the logical elements of the book, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle had common ground to hold discussion, so what was the disagreement? The answer can be partly found in comment made by Rudolf Carnap who said:

. . . when we were reading Wittgenstein’s book in the Circle, I had erroneously believed that his attitude towards metaphysics was similar to ours. I had not paid sufficient attention to the statements in his book about the mystical, because his feelings and thought in this area were too divergent from mine.

These mystical comments Carnap is referring to are a few propositions before the penultimate conclusion of the Tractatus, one which says: ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.’

Importantly, the bulk of the Tractatus was written during the First World War, where Wittgenstein served as a solider for the Austrian army. In an almost parabolic turn of events, Wittgenstein stumbled across Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief in an empty Newsagent situated in a small Austrian town. The young solider became mesmerised by the work, dedicating passages to heart and recommending the book to other soldiers, earning him the label ‘the man with the gospels’. Wittgenstein was subsequently captured by enemy forces and placed in an Italian labour camp where he read more works of Christian literature including, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Pseudo-Dionysius. Upon returning from the war, Russell would comment that Wittgenstein had penetrated deeply in Christian mystical feeling. After the publication of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein left Cambridge, and amongst other ventures, attempted to join a Monastery before returning to Cambridge to correct what he saw as grave mistakes in his earlier work. Wittgenstein had an interesting religiosity: he disdained traditional theology and Christian philosophy, but loved the Gospel in Brief, expressed a desire to believe in the Resurrection, and reflected that he needed faith: a certainty in being redeemed, but certainty for his soul, his heart, and not his intellect. Yet, he would never have believed in the God of mainstream Christianity – an idea he found repulsive – and yet prayed fervently during the war and during periods beyond. How are we to make sense of this when in the Tractatus he labels religious dialogue as nonsense?

Like any complex text, there is disagreement regarding just how one is to understand the machinations of the Tractatus. Here we will explore what could be considered as the Orthodox view, for it is the easiest to comprehend, and communicates Wittgenstein’s intention quite well. Central to the Tractatus is Wittgenstein’s ‘picture theory of meaning’, which he believes to be the essence of language: language enables us to ‘picture’ the world, to describe the world as a map does terrain or musical notation does music. Wittgenstein chose these examples carefully for they communicate an important point regarding the picture theory: the picture does not need to be a one-to-one representation; the importance of a map or musical notation is that they describe relationships between entities – they do not picture the entities in great detail like a photo would. For example, say you wanted to visit Alphacrucis in Parramatta but did not know how to get around the Campus, I could draw you a diagram that would help you navigate the space. With this diagram, you will be less interested in whether I have drawn the Parramatta campus in such detail as you can recognise the books on my shelf, than whether the relationship between my desk, the office door, the restrooms, are accurate. Now, I could draw you a false diagram whereby my desk was in our principal’s office and in this sense the diagram is not picturing reality. Then what is it picturing? It pictures a logical possibility: we can conceive of a state of affairs where my desk is in the principal’s office, even if it isn’t actually so. All of these logical possibilities (my desk is in the principal’s office, Professor Shane Clifton’s office, the roof) are what is called logical space. Now, we would say that the diagram made sense, but it was false, and this would draw attention to a key feature of the picture theory of meaning: sense and truth are determined differently. The diagram makes sense because it pictures a logical possibility, but the truth-value of this picture is determined by reference to the actual campus at Parramatta. If we swap out my diagram with instructions I gave you over the phone, then we have language doing what it is designed (according to Wittgenstein) to do, picture things.

Suppose I say to you over the phone ‘If I am not busy at that time, we can go downstairs and get a coffee, but only if I am not busy.’ Here, I am ‘picturing’ a possible state of affairs, in the same way as saying ‘my desk is the furthest from the door’. This is another example of a proposition, for it asserts or states something. But if we pay close attention to my proposition, you will notice that it is comprised of three smaller propositions:

  1. I am busy.
  2. We can go downstairs
  3. We can get a coffee.

If we were to write this out in simple logical notation, to make clear what is being expressed, we could write it as such:

(b&c) ←→ -a

If we substitute the values ‘a’, ’b’, and c’’ with the smaller propositions above, we have my original statement (or proposition):

‘We can go down (b) and (&) we can get a coffee (c), if and only if (ßà) it is not the case  (-) that I am busy (a).’

So here we have the three statements logically analysed in simple notation, combined to make our original statement on the phone. Similarly, Wittgenstein believe that all propositions could be analysed to reveal ‘elementary propositions’ behind them. Elementary propositions are unambiguous and like regular propositions, have a binary truth-value – they are either true or false. Now if we use my example above, it is easy to see that the truth value (whether it is true of false)   of (b&c) ßà -a is dependent on the truth or falsity of ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’.  If c is false (I am busy) then whole proposition is false, for getting coffee was dependant on me not being busy. If I wasn’t busy, but we didn’t get coffee, or didn’t go down the stairs, again the whole proposition is false because I said I would do both of those. This is how Wittgenstein envisioned elementary propositions, they are ‘truth-conditions’ of propositions, that is, they determine the truth or falsity of propositions they are found within.

But what has this got to do with religious language being nonsense? Remember the meaning of an elementary proposition is what it pictures, its meaning tells us how the world is if it is true, or how the world could be if it is false. The truth of an elementary proposition is determined by seeing if what it describes in the world is actually the case. Therefore, meaning is intimately tied with truth-conditions, and elementary propositions are meaningful because they can be determined as either true or false. If our sentences are to be meaningful, then they need to be comprised of elementary propositions in some way or another. And here is the rub: religious propositions do not picture a possible situation in the world, for their truth value cannot be determined in the world. If I were to say ‘killing is immoral’, how would we determine the truth-value of this? We haven’t pictured a state of affairs that have, or have not, obtained. The proposition ‘Sam thinks killing is immoral’ does picture a possible state of affairs – an actual state of affairs in fact – but ‘killing is immoral’ does not picture anything. If I say ‘God prohibits killing’, this is another proposition whose truth-value cannot be determined. We could say ‘Scripture says that God prohibits killing’, and could ascertain that by doing an exegesis of a relevant passage, but it would remain an exegetical proposition and not a theological one. However, even if – by the strict conditions of discourse outlined in the Tractatus – we cannot speak meaningfully about ethics or moral living, we can still model a way of living that shows that it is right. This would be a form of what some philosophers call knowledge-how, a form of knowledge that, amongst other things, cannot be reduced to propositions. For Wittgenstein, this model was Jesus as written by Leo Tolstoy in his Gospel in Brief, the book that Wittgenstein carried with him during the war. As Philosophers Bill Shardt and David Large’s state:

‘The person whose moral outlook, i.e., their way of living, is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief has not been convinced by logical arguments of matters of fact. They have, rather, been shown, the way that they should live’

They go on to say that Wittgenstein felt deeply that the Gospel showed (if not said) what was right, here was the question of how should one live. Thus, the mystical that shows itself is a life modelled a certain way, in this case, by Jesus. This perspective is germane with other comments made by Wittgenstein such as:

6.521     The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.

(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)

In Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief religion is conceived as a set of pictures that inform a believer’s way of living, but that doesn’t guarantee that anything actually exists. For example, Wittgenstein said that he did not believe in a Final Judgement, but his friends reflected that his pursuit for ‘holiness’ surpassed that of many people who were explicitly religious. As he wrote during the First World War:

‘Perhaps the nearness of death will bring light into life. God enlighten me. Be at peace within yourself. But how do you find this peace in yourself? Only if I live in a way pleasing to God. Only so can one bear life.’

According to the young Wittgenstein writing up a list of ‘how to live a moral life’ would be a fruitless exercise, no less anchoring the genesis of this list in the will of some metaphysical deity that cannot be spoken of meaningfully. Elsewhere he says that:

‘It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. . . if I thought God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, than I would regard it as my duty to defy him’.

The question of ‘metaphysical realism’ (that there exists some other ‘place’ other than our physical one) in Wittgenstein’s early work is a tricky one, and one I have not yet determined. The mystical does indeed show itself, but that is through a certain life lived and it does not necessarily point to ‘another world’.

Whilst Wittgenstein would come to reject a lot of what he theorised in the Tractatus, as I can see, he did not reject its perspective on religion and continued to discard theological discourse, preferring lived faith. As such, this leads us to the famous words of James in his letter: ‘I will show you my faith by my deeds’. What type of faith you have will be communicated by your actions, not by what you say. The challenge is, if you were to ask your peers what type of faith your actions communicate, would it match your theology?  For Wittgenstein, this was the proper method of theology: not verbal discourse, but action, for action speaks louder and more clearly than words ever could. As students and teachers of theology, this is proper to keep in mind, for the purpose of theology is transformation of the person, not knowledge of theological propositions – lived faith is prior and primary to theology.

Or as Faust says, ‘in the beginning was the deed’.


Further reading:

Malcolm, Norman, and Peter Winch. Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? London: Routledge, 2007.

Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein : The Duty of Genius. New York: Free Press : Maxwell Macmillan International, 1990

Tolstoy, Leo, and Dustin Condren. The Gospel in Brief: The Life of Jesus. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.