Wittgenstein and religion as ‘language-game’

Religion and language have been associated with twentieth-century philosophers long before religious conflicts reappeared on the world scene a decade ago. Among the thinkers who tested the validity of religious language, Wittgenstein offered a very personal view which is part of his wider theory of the possibility of truth in linguistic statements. A most intense individual who spent his life asking himself the most fundamental questions and even considered suicide in his quest of the Absolute, the Austrian thinker remarked in his unpublished Philosophical Considerations: “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”
Wittgenstein was interested in two aspect of religious experience:

1) its sociological aspect, as he calls a religious culture and its practices a “form of life”, the latter to be interpreted in the following way: the reasons why someone becomes a believer may be traced back to “a certain kind of upbringing and by shaping one’s life in such and such a way.”

2) its linguistic aspect, as he describes religious talk as a “language-game”, autonomous and only intelligible to the members of that particular religious group.

In his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein acknowledged the mystical character of the world insofar as it is, at the same time, marvellous and inexplicable, even to scientists. Later on, he insisted that our only access to the religious realm is through the language that we use together, with the “practices” that accompany our linguistic behaviour. He remarked in his posthumously published notes on Culture and Value: “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet, it is possible to walk on it.”

Wittgenstein believed that we had no access to our minds apart from the medium of language. We could not even invent a private language, even if we tried. In the same way, we have no access to the divine independently of our “forms of life” and everyday language. When he talks about “forms of life” and “language-games”, Wittgenstein implies the impossibility of verifying the validity or veracity of religious utterances, in the absence of an external, objective vantage-point. In other words, we can never stand outside language. At he end of the day, monks praying in their abbey or Hindus bathing in the Ganges, take part in a cultural and linguistic ritual which only makes sense within their respective context.

A discussion on the psychological as well as cultural roots of religious language and practices should help Philosophy students to explore and clarify their own positions between ‘authentic’ religious beliefs and mere superstitions. As Wittgenstein put it:

“Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can, in the end, only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”

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