Religion in Wittgenstein's "On Certainty"

Seminar Paper, 2014

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0





2.Wittgenstein’s Relation to Religious Belief

3.Considerations Pertinent to Religion in On Certainty
Knowing and Believing
“He knows” vs. “I know”
Knowing and believing as a mental state
Religious Belief
Doubt and Certainty
Subjective and Objective Certainty
Hinges and “nonepistemic” Certainty
World picture
Language Game
Mysticism and Mythology

4. Questions about Religion and Possible Wittgensteinian Answers
Are religious beliefs hinge beliefs?
How can religious and secular world-pictures coexist?
How is a religious belief acquired?
What exactly do the faithful believe, know, and feel certain of?
How does religious belief affect the conduct of one’s life?

5. Epistemological Considerations

6. Conclusion

7. References


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1. Introduction

The phenomenon of religious belief poses many interesting and challenging questions: Those who don’t have the privilege of believing in miracles, divine providence, or resurrection often find it difficult to understand the meaning of religious concepts in a society characterized by a primarily scientific paradigm in fields like economy, technics, justice, or politics. A number of questions concerning religious belief seem to have puzzled also Ludwig Wittgenstein and he came up with interesting questions and answers to this effect. His concept of hinge beliefs, if applicable to religious belief, is a surprising and convincing explanation of the phenomenon of religious belief. But can it really be applied to religion and did Wittgenstein do that? This paper will try to find answers to these questions.

Here are a number of questions pertinent to religion to which Wittgenstein indirectly respon­ded:

a) Are religious beliefs comparable to the hinge beliefs of a secular world-picture?
b) How can a religious world-picture coexist with the scientific world-picture which dominates today’s politics, economics and jurisdiction?
c) How is a religious belief acquired?
d) What exactly do the faithful believe, what do they know and what do they feel certain of?
e) What is the relation between religious belief and the conduct of one’s life?

Wittgenstein’s attitude towards religion has significantly changed in the course of his life, from his childhood in one of the richest and most influential families of Vienna to his voluntary engagement in World War I and, finally, to his late philosophy. This paper is looking at religious belief primarily from the perspective of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s latest work, posthumously edited under the title ofOn Certainty. Wittgenstein comes up with interesting insights into the philosophy of knowledge, belief, trust, doubt, and certainty. Moreover, Wittgenstein ‘s wrestling with religious belief and world-picture also underlines and enhances his epistemological thinking, as Michael Kober puts it: “Wittgenstein's peculiar account of religion improves our understanding of epistemic certainty. (Kober 2007: 225)

In order to set the scene for Wittgenstein’s reflections inOn Certainty, I shall first briefly look at the development of his own attitude to religious belief as documented in his Notebooks and other sources.

In the following section I shall describe religious terms and phenomena as they appear inOn Certainty.

Then I shall match appropriate aphorisms of On Certainty with the questions mentioned above and thus distill possible answers by Wittgenstein to the questions. I’ll argue that religious beliefs are hinge beliefs in Wittgenstein’s sense and that his concept of hinges opens an opportunity to better understand world-pictures different from one’s own.

Finally, I shall comment my findings from the epistemological point of view.

2.Wittgenstein’s Relation to Religious Belief

Born into a family of Jewish descent, baptized and educated in Roman Catholic fashion and influenced by Protestant as well as agnostic members of his family, Wittgenstein was puzzled, inspired, and almost tortured for his whole life by very high ethical demands on himself and his conduct of life without ever practicing anything that would have been near to a religious life. “He appeared to crave for relief from his weaknesses; that is, in religious terms, for redemption” (Kober 2007: 244).

Frederick Sontag adds the following characterization of Wittgenstein’s presumed inner conflicts: “Philosophy, intellect, simplicity, ascetic practice and the search for love, all fought continually as competing goals in Wittgenstein’s mind and soul, and they did so without resolution”. (1995: 128). Other than Leo Tolstoy, however, whose bookThe Gospel in Briefwas for some time during World War I his preferred and almost revered reading, Wittgenstein did not revert to a religious life.

During World War I, when he voluntarily served in the Austrian army in often life-threatening positions at the front line, we can see from his notebooks that belief in God was not completely distant or alien to him.

On July 6th, 1916, he wrote in his Notebooks (1914-1916):

The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God. And connect with this the comparison of God to a father. To pray is to think about the meaning of life. (NB, 73e)

A few years later, in his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, there was little space left for religious thoughts. “God does not reveal himselfinthe world” (TLP: 6.432) is one of the few references to be found. We can assume, however, that this was not because he had entirely lost interest in religion, but because the matter was outside the scope of the book. In the narrow definition of meaningful discourse he is advocating in the Tractatus, religious language “does not get so far as to be false” (Clack 1999: 28). In that interpretation of meaning, Wittgenstein considered religious beliefs neither to be true nor false, he signified them to be senseless (cf. ibid.).

Gradually, Wittgenstein developed a more distanced attitude towards religion, which Brian R. Clack characterizes as follows: “Religion is not grounded in rationcination, but is, rather, something like a way of responding to the world, a mode of orientation, or a way of living in the world.” (1999: 65 f).

In his last years he was using religious as well as mythical matters more metaphorically, to exemplify his epistemological considerations. Before we can draw conclusions concerning religion from his aphorisms, we must prepare the stage with some epistemological deliberations.

3. Considerations Pertinent to Religion in On Certainty

On Certaintyis not a book about religion, or religious belief. It deals, however, with many topics that are relevant also for religion. Knowing and believing, doubt and certainty, world-picture, language games, acting, mysticism and mythology, and, finally, God are concepts alluded to in the book. Together, they help to clarify some aspects of Wittgenstein’s attitude towards religion.

Knowing and Believing

Does a religious believerknowabout God or does he justbelievein his existence and properties? That is a question which probably is not a concern of believers, but it is important for a philosophical, epistemological understanding of religious belief.

“He knows” vs. “I know”

In OC 13 Wittgenstein explains the difference between “he knows”, which implies knowledge, and “I know” which only expresses my conviction, but not necessarily knowledge, as long as I have not provided satisfactory justification for it:

For it is not as though the proposition "It is so" could be inferred from someone else's utterance: "I know it is so". Nor from the utterance together with its not being a lie. - But can't I infer "It is so" from my own utterance "I know etc."? Yes; and also "There is a hand there" follows from the proposition "He knows that there's a hand there". But from his utterance "I know..." it does not follow that he does know it. (OC 13)

As a consequence of the rule that knowledge requires justification, Wittgenstein adds: "What is the proof that I know something? Most certainlynotmy saying I know it.“ (OC 487, my emphasis) My saying “I know that p” is no acceptable proof for p as long as I cannot provide objective evidence for p. Wittgenstein: “Whether I know something depends on whether the evidence backs me up or contradicts me. For to say one knows one has a pain means nothing.” (OC 504)

One says "I know" when one is ready to give compelling grounds. "I know" relates to a possibility of demonstrating the truth. Whether someone knows something can come to light, assuming that he is convinced of it. But if what he believes is of such a kind that the grounds that he can give are no surer than his assertion, then he cannot say that he knows what he believes. (OC 243)

This aphorism could be relevant for religious belief: can a believer ever provide grounds for his belief that are surer than his mental state of conviction? If not, he does not know – in a philosophical sense - what he believes.

We can also imagine a case where someone goes through a list of propositions and as he does so keeps asking "Do I know that or do I only believe it?" He wants to check the certainty of each individual proposition. It might be a question of making a statement as a witness before a court. (OC 485)

In this context, “do I know that?” is equal to “can I provide empirical or logical evidence for it?” Without evidence the judge will take my testimony just as a belief.

Knowing and believing as a mental state

The following aphorisms also take the mental state of the believer into consideration: the mental state of conviction is the same, regardless of whether the agent has knowledge or only belief, even false belief. In any case he is in the mental state of believing:

One can say "He believes it, but it isn't so", but not "He knows it, but it isn't so". Does this stem from the difference between the mental states of belief and knowledge? No. - One may for example call "mental state" what is expressed by tone of voice in speaking, by gestures etc. It would thus be possible to speak of a mental state of conviction, and that may be the same whether it is knowledge or false belief. (OC 42)

A specific mental state can comprise belief or knowledge, because subjectively those feelings are identical, there is only an epistemological difference.

Wittgenstein asserts that in two further paragraphs: “What I know, I believe.” (OC 177) and “So here the sentence >I know...< expresses the readiness to believe certain things.” (OC 330) Though epistemologically knowing and believing are different, they result in the same mental state – that of conviction.

Religious Belief

There is only one occurrence of religious belief inOn Certainty:

If the shopkeeper wanted to investigate each of his apples without any reason, for the sake of being certain about everything, why doesn't he have to investigate the investigation? And can one talk of belief here (I mean belief as in 'religious belief', not surmise)? All psychological terms merely distract us from the thing that really matters. (OC 459)

It tells us that Wittgenstein differentiated between surmise and religious belief and, as far as I can see, that he thinks that everyday activities like selling apples in a shop are not subject to belief but rather subject to rule following. We don’t believe in the foundations of our everyday activities, we just carry those out in the way we have ever done them.

Doubt and Certainty

Certainty has to do with knowing, but it is not the same. “One might say: > 'I know' expresses comfortable certainty, not the certainty that is still struggling.<” (OC 357) or “I know = I am familiar with it as a certainty.” (OC 272)

“I know” signifies individual certainty and absence of doubt, but not knowledge in an epistemological sense:

If someone replied: "I also know that it will never seem to me as if anything contradicted that knowledge", - what could we gather from that, except that he himself had no doubt that it would never happen? (OC 365)

Wittgenstein asserts that between knowledge and certainty there is a categorial difference: “'Knowledge' and 'certainty' belong to different categories. They are not two 'mental states' like, say 'surmising' and 'being sure'” (OC 308). I think he wants to say that knowledge involves objective truth based on empirical facts or logical conclusions, while certainty is a mental state, a mental state of conviction:

One may for example call "mental state" what is expressed by tone of voice in speaking, by gestures etc. It would thus be possible to speak ofa mental state of conviction, and that may be the same whether it is knowledge or false belief. (OC 42, my emphasis)

How does certainty come about, and what does it feel like? What is the difference between subjective certainty, objective certainty, and “nonepistemic” certainty?

Subjective and Objective Certainty

Wittgenstein differentiates between two forms of certainty:subjectiveandobjectivecertainty. Subjective certainty is based on belief, objective certainty on knowledge.

To whom does anyone say that he knows something? To himself, or to someone else. If he says it to himself, how is it distinguished from the assertion that he is sure that things are like that? There is no subjective sureness that I know something. The certainty is subjective, but not the knowledge. (OC 245)

Subjective certainty is expressed in conviction and absence of doubt, whatever they are based upon. I think that religious belief is a typical instance of this kind of certainty. For objective certainty, Wittgenstein claims that a mistake must not be possible and he seems to imply that a mistake must belogicallyexcluded:

With the word "certain" we express complete conviction, the total absence of doubt, and thereby we seek to convince other people. That is subjective certainty. But when is something objectively certain? When a mistake is not possible. But what kind of possibility is that? Mustn't mistake be logically excluded? (OC 194)

What does Wittgenstein mean when saying that mistake must belogicallyexcluded? OC 494 provides a clue: "I cannot doubt this proposition without giving up all judgement”. That brings objective certainty into the realm of a rule, the violation of which would be completely unreasonable. Danièle Moyal-Sharrock explains objective certainty as follows: “the onlyobjective certaintythat would becategoriallydistinct from knowledge is a certainty which would not depend on justification” (2005: 16).

In the next aphorism, Wittgenstein leaves the dichotomy of subjective and objective certainty behind and goes a step further to a certainty that “underlies all questions and all thinking”:

And in fact, isn't the use of the word "know" as a preeminently philosophical word altogether wrong? If "know" has this interest, why not "being certain"? Apparently because it would be too subjective. But isn't "know" just as subjective? Isn't one misled simply by the grammatical peculiarity that "p" follows from "I know p"? "I believe I know" would not need to express a lesser degree of certainty. - True, but one isn't trying to express even the greatest subjective certainty, but rather that certain propositions seem to underlie all questions and all thinking. (OC 415)


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Religion in Wittgenstein's "On Certainty"
University of Vienna  (Institut für Philosophie)
Wittgenstein and Epistemology
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Wittgenstein, Religion, Certainty, Doubt, Epistemology, World Picture
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Karl-Heinz Mayer (Author), 2014, Religion in Wittgenstein's "On Certainty", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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