Tag Archives: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

On complicating the relationship between objects and methods of reflection

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein

318. […] there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

from On Certainty

2. John Webster

Determining the possibility, nature, and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. “Dogmatics does not wait for an introduction” [Hoeksema].

from The Domain of the Word (Bloomsbury, 2014), 133.

Fergus Kerr on Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe as readers of Wittgenstein

How, as theologians, did Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe read Wittgenstein’s Investigations? Neither held the standard view that the Investigations is intended as a contribution to something  called “philosophy of language.” That (Ernst would have thought) is [a] kind of “trivialization” of Wittgenstein … . That only corrals Wittgenstein in a crowded field of professional philosophy. His work is much more revolutionary and iconoclastic than that. Neither Ernst nor McCabe believed that the Investigations was any more responsible for ordinary language philosophy, linguistic analysis, and so on, than the Tractatus for logical positivism. Such outgrowths they regarded as the product of radical misunderstandings. They did not believe that his advice to “Let the uses of words teach you their meaning” was the cure-all for philosophical problems. They believed, as we have seen, that the later work initiated “the demise of the Cartesian epoch,” as McCabe said and, as Ernst said, offered relief from “the absurdity of the empiricist theory of meaning.” They held that the point of Wittgenstein’s distinction in the Tractatus between what can be said and what we must be silent about was made in order to protect the realm of ethics and religion — the mystical — from misapplied ideals of science.

from “Anscombe, Ernst, and McCabe: Wittgenstein and Catholic Theology.” Josephinium Journal of Theology 15/1 (2008): 67-86.

David LaRocca on Autobiographical Remarks

The greatest obstacle to truth in conventional autobiography is not insufficient insight (about facts, memories, desires, or ideas elucidated by the intellect) but vanity — a resistance by one’s will to that very difficult type of understanding we may call self-understanding. […] In the present essay, in light of Wittgenstein’s reading of Tolstoy, I explore the notion that autobiographical practice does not require a form of self-consciousness, or intellect, that may aid the development of humility, honesty, and decency. The real work of autobiographical practice isn’t done by self-consciousness but is achieved by the true humility that derives from will — a will that blocks vanity.

from “Note to Self: Learn to Write Autobiographical Remarks from Wittgenstein,” in Wittgenstein Reading, Eds. Bru, Huemer, & Steuer, (De Gruyter, 2013), 320.

Commentary: With the above LaRocca offers the always needed reminder that self-knowledge is every bit as much a moral endeavor as it is intellectual. And if we would build on LaRocca’s contribution, I’m persuaded that, first, we would do well to remember that there are more obstacles to an honest estimate of ourselves than just vanity. Lusts, cowardice, mercilessness and all sorts of other vices could do the trick of blinding us just as effectively. And second, no matter our vigilance, moral maturity is not an achievement of an individual’s sheer will-power alone. For suggestions as to what other factors are in play, you can browse other posts of mine on this topic here.

Rush Rhees on the philosophical life

The difficulties of philosophy have in certain ways the character of moral difficulties. This is what Wittgenstein implies when he says that in philosophy one has to struggle constantly against a resistance within oneself, which is a resistance of will. One is unwilling to let certain ways of thinking go. It was in such connexions also that Wittgenstein said that whoever does philosophy will have to suffer.

It may be suggested also that we should be surprised to find anyone who was a serious philosopher and was at the same time a playboy or man about town. We may feel that devotion to philosophy goes together with a certain asceticism in one’s life, and a certain humility. And this is not just because of the tradition of the Stoic ‘sage’; nor is it just because certain philosophers who come to mind (Socrates or Spinoza, for instance) have lived that way. We may feel that there is something more like an internal connexion between what you are engaged on in philosophy, and the sort of life you lead.

from Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse, 2nd Ed., Ed. D.Z. Phillips, (Blackwell, 2006), xii.

M. O’C. Drury on Wittgenstein and the history of philosophy

It is said that Wittgenstein knew little about the history of philosophy and spoke with some contempt about what had previously been called metaphysics. This is not true. Certainly he would not allow a philosophical discussion to be side tracked by irrelevant references to the statements of previous thinkers. And he thought it dangerous for a student of philosophy to spend a lot of time puzzling over say Kant or Hegel, when he should be thinking about what really puzzles him. Isn’t it a great relief to read a philosophical text such as Wittgenstein’s which is not weighted down by a mass of learned historicity? But that Wittgenstein was in any way arrogant towards the past or thought that he, or any of us, because we lived in the twentieth century were therefore more advanced in our thinking that is the very reverse of his belief. He shewed always a most remarkable and rare humility towards the past.

from “1967 Dublin Lecture on Wittgenstein,” in The Danger of Words and writings on Wittgenstein, (Thoemmes Press, 1996), 2.

Rush Rhees on the demands and scope of Wittgenstein’s Investigations

Wittgenstein did go through the [PhilosophicalInvestigations with me – some parts of it several times – before it was published. And although such understanding of it as I have has come more since his death, I should have understood less if I had not heard him read it and had him discuss it with me. This does not mean that I could speak about it with any authority at all. It means only that I agree that I could not get the hang of it and must give it up, if I had not had that help. (There are others who were not so lucky as I was, and who have no doubt understood it better, though.) Earlier drafts of various passages in it go back pretty far. Wittgenstein constantly tried to make his remarks more forceful, and also to shorten them. This meant that he demanded more from his readers. And of course most of his readers have not given what was needed. Here I am thinking above all of the bearing which these remarks in the Investigations have on other questions in philosophy and in logic. He thought that the same ‘line of thinking’, and in many ways the same problems, which come up in logic and the philosophy of mathematics, and also in metaphysics – the idea of the creation of the world and the idea of a Saviour – that these are really the same problems which he is discussing here in the Investigations. Wittgenstein himself had a genius for perceiving identities of this sort: it went together with his genius for recognizing problems where few or no one else would recognize them. And he thought that anyone who thought about what he has said in the Investigations, would come to realize that connexion – if he was giving any deep thought to them. I think it is clear that he was asking for more than most readers would be able to give or to do. And in some measure he may have expected this. (The idea that the Investigations is just an essay in philosophical psychology is one of the easiest and most short-sighted.)

from Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse, 2nd Ed., Ed. D.Z. Phillips, (Blackwell, 2006), 257.