Putting Two and Two Together: Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and the Point of View for Their Work as Authors1

Part of the Claremont Studies in the Philosophy of Religion book series (CSPR)


This paper is a commentary on its two epigraphs. It is about both the reasons why and the ways in which Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein attempt to remain faithful to the injunction expressed in these epigraphs. It is therefore about why their writing comes in the shape that it does.


Religious Life Religious Person Religious Concept Religious Category Ordinary Belief 
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  1. 5.
    Maurice O’C. Drury, ‘Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein’, in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, edited by Rush Rhees (Rowman & Littlefield, 1981), p. 102.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    I will not review here all the evidence which testifies to the strength and the depth of Wittgenstein’s interest in Kierkegaard. This has been undertaken repeatedly by others (see, for example, Charles L. Creegan, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, Routledge, 1989). Aside from the implicit and explicit evidence throughout the Nachlass, the cast of characters who bear witness to Wittgenstein’s absorption in and esteem for Kierkegaard include Maurice O’C. Drury, Paul Engelmann, H.D.P. Lee, Norman Malcolm, Rush Rhees, Bertrand Russell, Hermine Wittgenstein, and G.H. von Wright.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Midwest Studies In Philosophy, vol. XVII, eds French, Uehling and Wettstein (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992); reprinted in Wittgenstein and Religion, Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press, 1993. References will be from the latter work.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    As Wittgenstein warns: ‘What we say will be easy, but to know why we say it will be very difficult’. Wittgensteins Lectures: Cambridge, 1932–1935, ed. Alice Ambrose (University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 77.Google Scholar
  5. 19.
    Josiah Thompson, Kierkegaard (London: 1974). Thompson writes: The pseudonymous authors … are … nonparticipants in life, they are its critics and spectators…. [T]here is an underlying black humour. For finally the joke is on the reader, and the smarter he is, the sooner he realises it. … [T]o see through all the pseudonyms, to recognise that the vision of any one of them is not to be preferred to that of any other, is finally to join Kierkegaard in his cloister. It is to share with him that peculiarly modern laceration — ‘I must believe, but I can’t believe’ — which since his time has become even more painful. (p. 147)Google Scholar
  6. 42.
    R.F. Holland, ‘Not Bending the Knee’, Philosophical Investigations, (Jan. 1990).Google Scholar
  7. 43.
    From Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, edited by Rush Rhees (Oxford, 1991), p. 94.Google Scholar
  8. 48.
    It is against the background of this sort of issue (concerning what sort of life the person who calls himself a Christian leads) that one should understand Kierkegaard’s incessant remarks about how Christianity is not a doctrine. The connection between these two topics is explicit in the following passage: Christianity is not a doctrine…. Christianity is a message about existence…. If Christianity (precisely because it is not a doctrine) is not reduplicated in the life of the person expounding it, then he does not expound Christianity, for Christianity is a message about living and can only be expounded by being realized in men’s lives. (The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, ed. P. Rohde, Citadel, 1960; p. 117) Wittgenstein writes: Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life…. I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.) (Culture and Value, pp. 28, 53) It is worth noting here the parallel with Nietzsche as well: It is false to the point of absurdity to see in a ‘belief’, perchance the belief in a redemption through Christ, the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian: only Christian practice, a life such as he who died on the cross lived, is Christian … Not a belief but a doing, above all a not-doing of many things, a different being … States of consciousness, beliefs of any kind, holding something to be true for example … are a matter of complete indifference … To reduce being a Christian, Christianness, to a holding something to be true, to a mere phenomenality of consciousness, means to negate Christianness. (The Anti-Christ, §39) Kierkegaard himself is willing to put the point in the following extreme terms: God himself is this: how one involves oneself with Him…. In respect to God, the how is what. (Journals, vol. 2, X A 644, p. 123)Google Scholar
  9. 53.
    Wittgensteins Lectures: Cambridge, 1932–1935, ed. Alice Ambrose (University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 97.Google Scholar
  10. 57.
    For an interesting and far more extensive discussion of this question, see Peter Winch’s postscript to Norman Malcolm’s Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? (Cornell University Press, 1994). Malcolm’s book itself in large part comprises an (in my opinion, rather unhappy) attempt to answer this question.Google Scholar
  11. 59.
    Two notable exceptions — who do take this little book to heart — are M. Holmes Hartshorne in Kierkegaard: Godly Deceiver (Columbia University Press, 1990) andGoogle Scholar
  12. M. Jamie Ferreira in ‘The Point Outside the World: Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein on Nonsense, Paradox, and Religion’, Religious Studies 30:1 (1994).Google Scholar
  13. 71.
    Wittgenstein’s debt to this region of Lessing’s thought comes largely by way of Kierkegaard. (Though in Culture and Value (p. 8) he tells us he has been reading Lessing on the Bible.) For example, in his Lectures on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein distinguishes between a religious use of expressions such as ‘I believe’ and a scientific or historic use: In a religious discourse we use such expressions as: ‘I believe that so and so will happen,’ and use them differently from the way in which we use them in science. Although, there is a great temptation to think we do [use them the same way in both]. Because we do talk of evidence, and do talk of evidence by experience. We could even talk of historic events. It has been said that Christianity rests on a historic basis. It has been said a thousand times by intelligent people that indubitability is not enough in this case. Even if there is as much evidence as for Napoleon. Because the indubitability wouldn’t be enough to make me change my whole life. It doesn’t rest in an historic basis in the sense that the ordinary belief in historic facts could serve as a foundation. Here we have a belief in historic facts different from a belief in ordinary historic facts. … [T]hey are not treated as historical, empirical, propositions (p. 57). Who are the intelligent people who said ‘[I]ndubitability is not enough in this case. Even if there is as much evidence as for Napoleon’? Napoleon’s existence was not a possible candidate of historical conjecture in Lessing’s day, but otherwise the passage is straight from Lessing. The original example featured the Napoleon of the ancient world. Here is Lessing: What does it mean to accept an historical proposition as true? to believe an historical truth? Does it mean anything other than this: to accept this proposition, this truth as valid? to accept that there is no objection to be brought against it? to accept that one historical proposition is built on one thing, another on another, that from one historical truth another follows? to reserve to oneself the right to estimate other historical things accordingly? … We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all of Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great, permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear for ever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I. Now I have no objection to raise against Alexander and his victory: but it might still be possible that the story was founded on a mere poem … If on historical grounds I have no objection to the statement that Christ raised to life a dead man; must I therefore accept it as true that God has a son who is of the same essence as himself? What is the connection between my inability to raise any significant objection to the evidence of the former and my obligation to believe something against which my reason rebels? … [T]o jump with that historical truth to a quite different class of truths, and to demand of me that I should form all my metaphysical and moral ideas accordingly … because I cannot set any credible testimony against the resurrection of Christ: if that is not a ‘transition to another realm of thought’, then I do not know what Aristotle meant by this phrase. (Lessings Theological Writings, ed. Henry Chadwick, Stanford University Press, 1957, pp. 53–4) The entire first chapter of the Postscript is an implicit commentary on this passage and this is later made explicit (p. 88). (The second chapter is explicitly a commentary on a later passage taken from the same essay in which Lessing confesses himself unable to perform the leap of faith.) Climacus takes this passage to furnish a paradigmatic example of ‘a confusion of the categories’ (pp. 31, 88) and offers the following diagnosis of the confusion by way of an analogy with an embarrassed lover: Well then, everything being assumed [historically] in order with respect to the Scriptures — what follows? Has anyone who previously did not have faith been brought a single step nearer its acquisition? No, not a single step…. Has anyone who previously had faith gained anything with respect to its strength and power? Not in the least. Rather it is that in this voluminous knowledge, this certainty that lurks at the door of faith and threatens to devour it, he [who previously had faith] is in so dangerous a situation that he will need to put forth much effort … lest he fall victim to the temptation to confuse faith with knowledge.… Here is the crux of the matter:… For whose sake is it that the proof is sought? Faith does not need it; aye, it must even regard the proof as its enemy. But when faith begins to feel embarrassed and ashamed, like a young woman for whom her love is no longer sufficient, but who secretly feels ashamed of her lover and must therefore have it established that there is something remarkable about him — when faith … begins to cease to be faith, then a proof becomes necessary so as to command respect from the side of unbelief (pp. 30–1).Google Scholar
  14. 73.
    ‘You are inclined to put our difference in one way, as a difference of opinion. But I am not trying to persuade you to change your opinion … If there is an opinion involved, my only opinion is that this investigation is immensely important and very much against the grain.’ (Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, ed. Cora Diamond, Cornell University Press, 1976, p. 103.)Google Scholar
  15. 78.
    Various commentators have wished to call attention to a moral fervour which informs the pages of Philosophical Investigations. See especially Stanley Cavell, ‘Declining Decline: Wittgenstein as a Philosopher of Culture’ (in This New Yet Unapproachable America, University of Chicago Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  16. 101.
    The letter is dated 8 August 1932; quoted in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten, ed. M. Nedo and M. Ranchetti (Suhrkamp, 1983); p. 255. I am indebted to Peter Winch’s postscript to Norman Malcolm’s Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? (op. cit.) for drawing my attention to this letter.Google Scholar
  17. 102.
    I elaborate this distinction with respect to the Postscript and explore the parallel with the Tractatus much more fully in ‘Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Nonsense’ (in Pursuits of Reason, eds Cohen, Guyer and Putnam, Texas Tech University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

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© Timothy Tessin and Mario von der Ruhr 1995

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