The Challenge of Wittgenstein

  • Kai Nielsen
Part of the Modern Introductions to Philosophy book series


There are many who think that the kind of challenge I raised against Ziff is radically mistaken. To raise questions of confirmation/disconfirmation in the context of talking about the meaning of religious utterances is to show a rather complete lack of comprehension of their actual role in our lives. It, so the argument would run, is to treat them too much like hypotheses and to model God-talk too much on scientific discourse. A sensitive understanding of God-talk in its living contexts will show that it has a logic of its own which is in its own proper order. Dogmas and doctrines should not be regarded as opinions or hypotheses. They have an entirely different logic — a radically different role in human discourse. All a philosopher can properly do is to characterise it, to display perspicuously the actual function(s) of religious utterances so as to relieve our perplexities about it. He, qua philosopher, can in no way legitimately criticise this whole mode of discourse or claim that it is unintelligible or incoherent, though he can, and often should, criticise what theologians or philosophers say about it. What we in effect learn from Moore and directly learn from Wittgenstein is that in any mode of discourse the first-order discourse is all right as it is, it is only the second-order discourse — the talk about the talk — that frequently is in conceptual disarray. The philosopher’s job is to cure this malaise; but the first-order discourse itself is simply his uncriticisable given. That pre-Wittgensteinian philosophers thought they could criticise it and that some post-Wittgensteinian Neanderthals still think they can only attests to their confusion.


Religious Belief Religious People Religious Language Religious Discourse Empirical Proposition 
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Notes and Reference

  1. 1.
    D. Z. Phillips, The Concept of Prayer (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965);Google Scholar
  2. Peter Winch, ‘Understanding a Primitive Society’, The American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. I (October 1965).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, (ed. Cyril Barrett) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966 ). Hereafter referred to as Lectures on Religious Belief.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘A Lecture on Ethics’, Philosophical Review, vol. 74 (1965) 3–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. G. E. Moore, Philosophical Papers ( London: Allen & Unwin, 1962 ).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Ibid. For at least a prima-facie conflicting interpretation see F. Gerald Downing, ‘Games, Families, the Public and Religion’, Philosophy vol. XLVII (January 1972) 38–54. Downing rightly stresses that for Wittgenstein there cannot be an essentially ‘private-language’ and that for him ‘language-games’ are not isolated or sharply demarcated. But this is compatible with the sense of being sui generis stressed here.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 39.
    D. Z. Phillips, ‘Philosophy, Theology and the Reality of God’, Philosophical Quarterly (September 1963) 346.Google Scholar
  8. 40.
    Rush Rhees’s remarks on Wittgenstein’s lecture on ethics. See Philosophical Review, vol. 74 (1965) 26.Google Scholar
  9. 43.
    There is, of course, much more to be said about such issues, some of which I have said in my ‘Religion and Commitment’ in William Blackstone and Robert Ayers (eds), Religious Language and Knowledge (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1971); my ‘In Defense of Atheism’, in Howard Kiefer and Milton Munitz (eds) Perspectives in Education, Religion and the Arts (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1970); and in my Ethics Without God (London: Pemberton Publishing, 1973). It has been thought by some that at least the form of my argument is crudely empiricist. I hope that later chapters show that it is empiricist but not crudely empiricist. I have also said crucial methodological things about such issues of empiricism in my Reason and Practice (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), particularly in Chapters 21and 31 through 36.Google Scholar

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© Kai Nielsen 1982

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  • Kai Nielsen

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