Asking Too Many Questions

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


This essay is a further reflection on a lecture I gave to the British Academy in 1982. The lecture was called ‘Ceasing to Exist’.1 Its argument turned on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer2 part of which recounts an incident in which a tool shed on a farm suddenly vanishes without trace or explanation of any kind. The question I asked in the lecture was whether we could understand such a narrative if it were presented as an alleged account of an actual occurrence, rather than in a fictional context. My argument was a fairly close one and any merit which the lecture has must lie, in my opinion, wholly in the details of the argument, rather than in its ‘conclusion’ as such. However, it is not my purpose to recapitulate or discuss that argument here and I must content myself with saying that it led to the conclusion that the verb ‘to cease to exist’, when used in such a contextless way, is drained of the kinds of sense it bears in its normal uses.


Philosophical Investigation Common World World Picture Early Medieval Period Burning Bush 
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  1. 1.
    Reprinted in Peter Winch, Trying to Make Sense (Oxford, Blackwell, 1987).Google Scholar
  2. This book has been published in German translation (by Joachim Schulte) under the title Versuchen zu Verstehen (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1992). The British Academy lecture has given rise to some controversy in the literature and here are references for some of the most important contributions to that controversy: H.O. Mounce, Critical Notice of Trying to Make Sense in Philosophical Investigations, vol. 11, 1988; R.F. Holland, ‘Lusus Naturae’ in Wittgenstein: Attention to Particulars: Essays in Honour of Rush Rhees, ed. D.Z. Phillips and Peter Winch (London, Macmillan, 1989);Google Scholar
  3. R.F. Holland, ‘Naturalism and Preternatural Change’ in Values and Understanding: Essays for Peter Winch, ed. Raimond Gaita (London, Routledge 1990);Google Scholar
  4. Norman Malcolm, ‘On Ceasing to Exist’ in Ibid.;Google Scholar
  5. D.Z. Phillips, ‘Waiting for the Vanishing Shed’, Mid-West Studies in Philosophy, 1992, reprinted in Wittgenstein and Religion (London, Macmillan and New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1993); D.Z. Phillips, ‘Miracles and Open-Door Epistemology’, Scottish Journal of Religious Studies, 1993.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    Isaac Bashevis Singer, ‘Stories from Behind the Stove’ in A Friend of Kafka (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970).Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    I am thinking here of the use made by Wittgenstein of this expression in On Certainty, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford. Blackwell. 1969).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    R.F. Holland, ‘The Miraculous’ in Against Empiricism (Oxford, Blackwell, 1980).Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    ‘Must you look at something in this way? No. But it is one of the most important facts of human life that such impressions sometimes force themselves on you.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘A Lecture on Freedom of the Will’ (from notes by Yorick Smythies), Philosophical Investigations, vol. 12, no. 2, April 1989.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    See in this connection Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, II, xi and Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, passim; also Simone Weil, ‘Essay on the Notion of Reading’, translated Rebecca Fine Rose and Timothy Tessin, Philosophical Investigations, vol. 13, no. 4, April 1990.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    Cf. some of the essays in O.K. Bouwsma, Without Proof or Evidence, ed. Craft and Hustwit (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1984).Google Scholar

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© Timothy Tessin and Mario von der Ruhr 1995

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