- Wittgenstein and Judaism: A Triumph of Concealment
Ranjit Chatterjee proffers the radical thesis that "Wittgenstein wished to lead his reader on slowly from the gentile to the Jewish world of thought as part of the deep solution to philosophical (or religious and ethical) problems" (p. 189). In one sense, this is a new thesis: no one has yet argued that Wittgenstein was a Jewish proselytizer. In another sense, it is not a new thesis: several authors have argued that Wittgenstein was a religious man, perhaps a religious mystic. The first difficulty with a thesis of this sort is that Wittgenstein famously told his friend M.O.C. Drury that he was not a religious man. Wittgenstein deeply respected religious ways of living. He once said, "All genuine expressions of religion are wonderful" (Rush Rhees, ed., Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, [Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1981], p. 108). But he would have been the first to remind us that respect and appreciation are not the same as appropriation. Arguments for a religious Wittgenstein sound tortuous in the face of words like these, penned in 1946: "I cannot kneel to pray because it's as [End Page 155] though my knees were stiff. I am afraid of dissolution (of my own dissolution), should I become soft" (Wittgenstein, Culture and Value [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980], p. 56e).
Chatterjee's way of addressing this first difficulty is to argue that Wittgenstein was forced to conceal his Jewish commitment. The work thus includes a great deal of valuable material concerning the conditions in which Wittgenstein lived and worked. Chatterjee convincingly demonstrates why a Jewish intellectual in the Europe of the mid-twentieth century might go to great lengths to conceal his Jewishness. The author is also quite adept at juxtaposing a dizzying array of admittedly perplexing quotes and comments from numerous sources, contributing to the notion that Wittgenstein was a religious mystic of a sort. But the further case that Wittgenstein practiced concealment in order to advance Judaism is much more difficult to make. One difficulty accompanies any thesis of concealment. Whatever evidence counts against the thesis that Wittgenstein was devoted to a Jewish way of thinking is attributed to concealment. Thus I can imagine that Chatterjee's book might inspire devotion or incite indignation. But in that case one might wonder whether he is proffering a thesis at all.
There is a second difficulty that ought to be addressed when arguing that Wittgenstein was a religious man. This is the question of what Wittgenstein may have thought of the relation between religion and philosophy. Chatterjee ignores this problem by collapsing philosophy into the religious and ethical. This is Chatterjee's postmodern move, made in a chapter dedicated to showing Wittgenstein's affinities with Levinas and Derrida: "If we define postmodernism simply as the demonstration . . . that the road to ethics goes through philosophy of language, then Wittgenstein was traveling this road and setting up signposts for his readers in the heyday of modernism" (p. 138). Philosophy is the handmaiden of religion and ethics. Thus what is distinctively philosophical in Wittgenstein's writings is never weighed against whatever religious or ethical views he may have personally embraced. It is a serious oversight. Wittgenstein once wrote: "A philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher" (Wittgenstein, Zettel [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967], p. 80). The philosopher's struggle with the passions is a vital theme throughout Wittgenstein's work. Chatterjee shows no attention to the ways in which Wittgenstein struggled to set aside religious and ethical passions (his own and others) in order to write philosophy that is dedicated almost exclusively to elucidation: "My ideal is a certain coolness. A temple providing a setting for the passions without meddling with them" (Culture and Value, 2e). Since for Chatterjee the temple is a religious temple, [End Page 156] as opposed to a philosophical temple, he is unable to give an account of the tensions between philosophy and religion in Wittgenstein.
There is finally...