Wittgenstein on Religious Belief

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  • Topic: Religion, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Faith
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Wittgenstein on Religious Belief
INTRODUCTION
Religious belief and practices are human universals. There are no atheist communities and, as far as we know, there never have been. Even within the most secular societies on Earth, the countries of Western Europe, many people are religious to at least some extent, holding certain supernatural beliefs (such as life after death) or engaging in certain religious practices (such as prayer). And in the rest of the world- in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, for instance-religious rituals and ideas are at the core of people’s day-to-day lives. Thus in one way or the other, most people adhere to a particular religious tradition from which perspective, they make sense of human existence and the whole cosmos at large. However, there had also been serious people in the history of thought, who candidly professed their non-affiliation with any religious tradition, yet on the side, willingly admit that they share some form of religious sympathy. The American poet and philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) is for one, and another is the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who though admitting that he’s not a religious man, uttered that “I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna, Austria, to a wealthy industrial family, well-situated in intellectual and cultural Viennese circles. His father Karl Wittgenstein’s parents were born Jewish but converted to Protestantism and his mother Leopoldine (nee Kalmus) was Catholic, but her father was of Jewish descent. Wittgenstein himself was baptized in a Catholic Church and was given a Catholic burial, although between baptism and burial he was neither a practicing nor a believing Catholic.

Wittgenstein is considered by some as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. His early work was influenced by that of Arthur Schopenhauer and, especially, by his teacher Bertrand Russell and by Gottlob Frege, who is a friend of him. However, he did not write a comprehensive philosophical treatment of the nature of religious belief. Indeed, much of his seminal ideas on this regard are scattered implicitly in his two major works, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations, but more expressly in the posthumously published Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, On Certainty and especially in the series of three lectures that he gave in Cambridge in 1938. These lectures, published in 1966, fifteen years after Wittgenstein’s death, are the compiled notes taken by his students. Though these lectures don’t exhaust the breath of Wittgenstein’s ideas on religious belief, it does offer a substantial continuous presentation of how he treats religious belief philosophically.

Despite his lack of formal treatment on the topic of religion, and the scant number of sources from which to decipher Wittgenstein’s views on the subject, a “Wittgensteinian” position within the philosophy of religion has arisen nevertheless. Moreover, this position has become one of the major contenders in contemporary philosophy of religion, representing an exciting era on the subject after a period of relative neglect arising from the influences of Logical Positivism. From many side, however, the “Wittgensteinian” position has come to be disparagingly referred to as the “Wittgensteinian Fideism”. However, Wittgenstein himself neither claimed to be a religious believer nor an opponent. He was uncertain what to make of either position.

In this term paper, I wish to offer an exposition of Wittgenstein’s idea of religious belief as generally expounded in the available philosophical resources, both electronic and non-electronic, to me. Moreover, this paper attempts to point where the idea of religious belief leads to, not only in the contemporary discussion in philosophy of religion, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the actual exercise of our own...
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