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Ludwig Wittgenstein: Ethics and Religion (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 60, Number 3, July 2010
pp. 422-424 | 10.1353/pew.0.0109

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No one in twentieth-century analytic philosophy was more preoccupied with the issues of ethics and religion than Ludwig Wittgenstein. In an age when religion has remained a prominent force, contrary to what some would have thought a hundred years ago, it is not surprising to see a book on Wittgenstein's concern with ethics and religion by a group of Indian philosophers. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Ethics and Religion, edited by Kali Charan Pandey—a collection of fifteen essays, some of which were presented at a conference—is divided into three sections; the first provides a broad outline while the other two deal with the issues of ethics and religion, respectively. The editor has written a detailed introduction to the essays that will be helpful to the reader. The contributions exhibit both descriptive and comparative approaches in an attempt to clarify Wittgenstein's thought and develop it further.

The opening broad outline is based solely on the Tractatus, where 'happiness' is characterized as the mark of the religious life. The World and the Self are the key notions here, and it is the renunciation of the latter that leads to the perspectiveless consciousness of the former, which allows one to become independent of the world and attain happiness. One of the contributors to this section, Bijoy Boruah, observes a close affinity between Wittgenstein and Buddhism insofar as both denounce desires that get in the way of true happiness, while the other, Ganesh Parshad Das, links Wittgenstein's notion of 'fate' with that of 'Daiva' in the Holy Gītā. Das covers a wide range of topics, making interesting and thought-provoking observations in a style that is not typical of analytic philosophy. At one point he seems to have overlooked an important feature of the Tractatus when he notes that "the elementary propositions are true, false neutral" (p. 43). But the Tractatus presents a truth-functional account of propositions, and, if elementary propositions are neither true nor false, so would be molecular propositions, as they are truth functions of the former.

The essays in the second section deal with, among other themes, the issues of moral agency; the ineffability of the ethical and religion; the nature of human beings; values; and the connection between logic and ethics and similar topics. The overlapping themes of ethics and religion along with the transcendental character of ethics and logic in his thought helped Wittgenstein to bring about a synthesis of goodness, beauty, and truth that allowed him to view life and the world sub specie aeternitatis. It has been argued that 'happiness' rests solely in changing one's attitude to the world rather than changing the world itself—esoteric views like this are linked with similar themes in Indian religious teachings. Regarding values, some have criticized Wittgenstein's conception of values because it does not distinguish between negative and positive values, while others have been critical of his perception of relative values. P. R. Bhatt is in agreement with Wittgenstein that values are absolute but is critical of his views on relative value judgments. Bhatt holds that values are mental states that guide our actions, and the relationship between them needs to be studied more carefully. But he has not been very careful in his own observations; for example, he writes, "Wittgenstein would agree that meaning and understanding are mental states since we grasp them," and "Grasping of a rule is a special form of experience" (p. 123). It is obvious that these observations cannot be applied to Wittgenstein. G. P. Ramachandra, basing his reasoning on Wittgenstein, criticizes John Rawls' theory of justice, finding Rawls' argument from the original position to liberty and then to equality problematic: since Rawls considers his choices to be prudent moves there is no proof of an original position.

The third section focuses on Wittgenstein's personal religious commitment, fideism, and the relation between science and religion. Wittgenstein's view of religion is seen to be mystical and transcendental without having any concern for its social aspects. N. Sreekumar suggests that Wittgenstein's view of sin, torment, and yearning for guidance from the infinite is akin to the official Christian worldview, while Sanil V. sees his thought in this...



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