Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

Is the answer to this question No?

Language paradoxes: If yes, then no; if no, then yes. Are there contradictions that are true rather than false or nonsense?

Topics on this page ...

Context: the background of the remarks on this page is logic of language, or, "How is meaning distinguished from nonsense in the discussion of philosophical problems?" Because if it isn't distinguished, then philosophy is "mere sound without sense".

Above all, we should never allow ourselves to be consumed by the present moment, but should foster that calmness that comes from great thoughts, and measure everything by them. (Bonhoeffer, Tegel July/August 1944)

... set before your mind the thought, What would Socrates have done? (Epictetus)

If you do not lose sight of the good, you will not go wrong. But lose sight of it and you surely will go wrong, because base instincts and bad habits formed in the time of ignorance of the good will take control of you.

And self-control is happiness for man, when knowledge of the good guides it. ("Know thyself" and Socratic ethics)


Questions of Meaning

Language paradoxes: If yes, then no; if no, then yes. Notes about earlier notes.

The Greek word barbaros

O [the birds are] not mere barbarians, as they were
Before I came. I've taught them language now. (Aristophanes, The Birds, l. 199-200, tr. B.B. Rogers)

That language will have been Greek. And the word Aristophanes uses is barbaros. (These lines are spoken by a former king of Thrace who had been transformed into a bird (hoopoe) himself.)

This is for the Stoic's concept "lekton" (which contrasts with the concept 'sign': the purely physical part of language which contrasts with its "use", e.g. spoken sounds, ink marks on paper), for what Greeks understand "while the barbarians do not understand, although they hear the sound" when Greek is spoken (Sextus Empiricus).

The Greek word "is cousin to the Sanskrit barbara and the Latin balbus, both of which mean stammering; cf. our babble. The Greeks implied by barbaros rather strangeness of speech than lack of civilization"; cf. outsiders "speaking outlandish tongues". (Will Durant, Life of Greece (1939), p. 236n, 236)

Cf. "'barbarian', a man whose speech was unintelligible and sounded like 'bar-bar-bar'". (Finley, Ancient Greeks (1963), p. 18)

"Learned Ignorance"

Has that notion anything to do with Socrates, with Socratic ignorance? What are we calling 'learned ignorance'? The following is how Albert Schweitzer defined that expression [Elsewhere he speaks of two kinds of naïveté].

True knowledge of the world consists in being penetrated by the mystery of the existence, and of life. The discoveries of scientific research merely make the mystery yet more mysterious. The penetration of which I speak corresponds to what the mystics call "learned ignorance" -- ignorance, that is to say, which at least grasped at what is essential.

("The Problem of Ethics in the Evolution of Human Thought", delivered to the French Academy on 20 October 1952, appendix to Jacques Feschotte, Albert Schweitzer: an introduction, tr. John Russell (1955), p. 128-129)

The meaning of 'mysticism'

By 'mystic' I think Schweitzer means someone who claims to have, or at least seeks to have, knowledge of things that "go beyond [transcend]" our experience of this world, e.g. such things as are looked for as answers to the riddles of existence ("ultimate reality", "absolute value", "fixed point of reference", God, gods, things like this). [Whether that is also what Wittgenstein meant by 'the mystical', I don't know. He certainly did not mean anything to which he would apply the word 'knowledge'.]

By 'mysticism', in this context, I think Schweitzer meant: the creation of a picture of reality that reason can bring you up to, but cannot take you across the threshold to, i.e. demonstrate to be true. And that if we answer any of the "eternal questions", then that our answers are mysticism.

In the mysticism of the middle ages there was [the expression] docta ignorantia -- "knowing ignorance". That is [the] condition [which] has been brought to us by natural science.

(Schweitzer, "Religion in Modern Civilization" (1934), tr. unnamed, appendix to George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: the man and his mind (1947), p. 341)

Schweitzer's mysticism and Socrates

What, if any, relationship that might have to Socrates, I don't know. Because Socrates, most clearly according to Xenophon (i, 1, 19), had what Schweitzer would call an "optimistic interpretation of the world": the gods are mindful of us and concerned for our well-being. Of course the Socrates of Plato's Apology does not claim to be wise, which would include knowledge of such things as the mystics seek -- but does that qualify as "a sense of the absolute mystery of existence" [despite all that has been "learned" or is "known" to us because of natural science]? I don't know. If I cannot know the historical Socrates, what is my own picture of him?

I am life which wants to live, and all around me is life that wants to live. Myself permeated by the will-to-life, I affirm my life: not simply that I want to go on living, but that I feel my life as a mystery and a standard of value. ("The Problem of Ethics in the Evolution of Human Thought", op. cit. p. 129)

Would Socrates have accepted that statement? I don't know. Did he feel "permeated by the will-to-live"? We picture the Athenians that way, for their vigorous outdoor life. But men grow old and prefer to die rather than go into decline; and other man, even if they have been granted the health of the Stoic Cleanthes, grow weary of this life ("My bed is made and I am ready to go there"), although I do not think that Socrates did: the search for, practice and enjoyment of the good and the true (Ethics or "no small matter, but how to live") was enough to fill Socrates' entire life; and that is the case in both Xenophon's and Plato's accounts of him.

I myself feel always on the edge of life and death, always aware that, to adapt the words of the kingdom, "man knows not the day nor the hour" he is to die, and so, although I take the true and the good very seriously, I don't feel attached to this world. I do not "want to go on living", although, like Cleanthes, I am not in a rush to die either. And life does not seem to me more a mystery than everything else about existence: to philosophize is to be puzzled. (Often when Schweitzer calls life a mystery, by 'life' I think he means something like 'life force', something about which we know only that it is there or it isn't.)

"Justice and kindliness" (Hesiod, the Greek gods)

"The immortals are near to men to watch over deeds of justice and kindliness", wrote Hesiod, and so all Greeks believed. (E. Hamilton The Greek Way (1942), viii, p. 172)

Xenophon's "that the gods are mindful of men". From Hesiod's words maybe it can be deduced that piety consists of "deeds of justice and kindliness" -- and kindliness, i.e. mercy, because the justice of the gods is equity, not man's unbending writ. Nonetheless, the older Greeks believed that the gods punish those men who break their oaths. (When someone breaks his oath, which is a vow taken before God -- [in the Theogony (c. line 231), the god Oath punishes men who knowingly swear false] --, and is not punished, that is why a character in Diagoras of Melos becomes an atheist. But that seems to have been a later view, not the original which saw punishment come even to the wrong-doer's descendants.)

Paradox Formation

Query: is the answer to this question no?

Language paradoxes: If yes, then no; if no, then yes. Compare this to "The paradox of the liar" -- (a man from Crete who says that everyone from Crete is a liar) -- for likewise that question sends us off in a circle, for it appears that if the proposition ('Everything I say is a lie') is True, then the proposition must be False (~'Everything I say is a lie'). Da capo. The query may be called an instance of "the paradox of the self-referential sentence". But would it not seem too broad and hence arbitrary if we made a rule excluding self-referential sentences from our language, e.g. if we made the rule: The word 'this' in a sentence cannot [i.e. is not allowed to] refer to the sentence itself?

Since we don't like contradictions in form ("We have no clear-cut use for them, and we don't want to use them" (RPP ii § 290)), we could rule contradictions out, as we do in mathematics, for example: If A x C = B x C, then A = B; BUT C is not allowed to equal 0 (zero). But then what of the sentences 'THIS SENTENCE IS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS' and 'This is an English-language sentence', for example; and even in the maths example: What if C = 0 but also A = 0 and B = 0? We might not want to exclude those from the language.

What we might say is that the grammar [i.e. syntax] of the English language does not exclude the formation of contradictions or "paradoxes". And if we come across particular cases of paradoxical formation -- and if they cause a disturbance to our system, as they do in mathematics -- we can make a rule to exclude those particular cases from our system. But could we rid natural language of the very possibility of their formation?

[About language paradoxes contrasted with philosophical paradoxes, see Paradox or contradiction and Socrates' paradox.]

If R, then NOT-R, but if NOT-R then R

Query: logic circles. This sentence is untrue.

Words are tools; language is a tool. Now, what work do you want to do with the combination of words 'This sentence is untrue'? Words do not have meaning in themselves, but only when they are given work to do. Presumably by 'logic circles' the query means things such as when the Cretan said 'All Cretans are liars' (Diog. L. ii, 108): If it is true, it is false, and if it is false it is true, and so on and on; that sort of thing is a circle of sorts.

Query: a question that no matter the answer it can't be answered.

It can't be answered correctly in any case.

Other meanings of 'meaning' (Impressions, fables)

Note: this is apropos of the discussion of Wittgenstein's lecture about Rationalism versus Empiricism.

Query: they let the words speak, Wittgenstein.

"They let the words speak to them ..." This is like what I called an 'impressionistic meaning' or 'definition' of a word. But is that how we determine what the meaning of a word is -- by each person asking himself what the word suggests to him? That would be Rationalism's "letting the words speak to them". The analytic propositions of linguistic analysis amount to this: "I feel that the essence of such-and-such is ..."

Query: fable to express meaning.

Here is another meaning of 'meaning' -- where 'the meaning' = a 'moral' or 'lesson'. For example, "One bad turn deserves another" (Aesop, The Fox and the Crane) -- And, therefore, don't do a bad turn unless you want one done to you, or, Treat others with the thoughtfulness you want others to treat you with. (Aesop's fable of the fox and the crane who invited one another to supper. The fox offered a flat plate from which the crane (with its long, thin, narrow beak) could not eat, and thus the crane offered the fox a deep narrow vase from which the fox could not eat.)

Does my "Fable of The Born-Blind-People" teach a lesson -- namely, the lesson that in philosophy words can sometimes be usefully compared to tools, where the meaning of a tool is the use made of it in way of life -- and is that lesson my fable's meaning in one sense of the word 'meaning'? It seems so.


Religion and Belief-In

Note: this continues the discussion Wittgenstein, in some sense a Christian, but in which sense?

Religious belief is not belief that quasi-empirical propositions are true, for its propositions are in nowise empirical. But what can be compared between religious propositions and empirical propositions is the role of pictures or picture-making [formation] in the defining of both propositional types.

When I talk about Wittgenstein's "irrationalism", you must remember that the notion of belief-in or faith (in the Catholic Christian sense of the word 'faith' = 'doctrine') had no place in his own religion, played no part, was of no importance to him. When he said that he did not believe that Jesus would come to judge him, he was not talking about belief as if this were belief that a statement of fact were true or false [The Second Coming is not an hypothesis]. That it is not intended as a statement of is shown by what he goes on to say:

... I cannot utter the word 'Lord' [1 Cor. 12.3] with meaning. Because I do not believe that [Jesus] will come to judge me; because that says nothing to me. And it could only say something to me were I to live quite differently. (CV p. 33, a remark from 1937)

That life-guiding picture, the picture of the Second Coming and Last Judgment, belongs to a different form of life [way of living] from the way he was living his life.

"Christianity is refuge for the one who feels himself lost"

The Christian religion is only for the one who needs infinite help, that is only for the one who suffers infinite distress.... if someone feels himself lost, that is the ultimate distress.... Christian faith -- so I believe -- is refuge in this ultimate distress. (CV (1998 rev. ed.) [MS 128 49: ca. 1944]; cf. CV (1980) p. 45-46)

It does seem that Wittgenstein at one time -- See e.g. the simile he suggested to his to his sister Hermine: storm raging and his letters to his friend Paul Engelmann -- felt himself to be in need of such help. (Whether, however, he believed during and directly after WW1 that "Christ would come to judge" him maybe can be inferred from his often saying "When we meet again at the Last Judgment".)

Wittgenstein and Christianity

Was Wittgenstein a Christian? Yes and no. That is the only answer that can be given. Or, No and yes. "What would it feel like not to have heard of Christ? Would we feel left alone in the dark?" (CV p. 13) That is a rhetorical question, and it is autobiographical; it is Wittgenstein speaking to himself, and he is not asking himself a question.

Was Wittgenstein a Christian? Again, the notion of belief-in statements that in some way resemble statements of fact [for they are comparable to pictures] despite being defined in such a way as to make them essentially unverifiable -- as if they really were statements of fact rather than myths -- had no place in his religion. None whatever; nothing to do with it. It wasn't even necessary to him that Jesus had ever existed as a matter of historical fact (Recollections p. 101). Well, does it affect the power of the story of the merciful Samaritan to change men's lives that Jesus was not telling a story about an historical Samaritan. Nonetheless, the historical person of Jesus appears necessary to most who call themselves Christians.

Not doctrine, but a way of life

For Wittgenstein, dogma and doctrine was not important, not only for his own religion, but for religion per se:

I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of you life.) .... The point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you ... (CV p. 53)

Nor in religion did Wittgenstein think that language was the key to understanding it (as he also did not believe this about Aesthetics; Wittgenstein's philosophy is not only about clarifying the language of philosophical problems; it does not only consist of grammatical investigations):

Actually I would like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. [Really what I would like to say is that here too what is important is not the words you use or what you think while saying them, so much as the difference they make at different points in your life.] How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? (CV p. 85 [MS 173 92r: 1950])

One says or utters sounds; what gives those sounds meaning in religious speech? Is religion a special case? (cf. the way language is used differently in different walks of life, in mathematics versus natural science e.g.) Supposed someone told us that his understanding of his religion had deepened with the years: would it follow that the words of his creed must have changed? Catholics e.g. recite the same Profession of Faith at every Mass, at every age of their lives. [But not as if the language of the creed therefore did not say what it says: Religious language is not metaphorical; for you must be able to restate metaphors in prose. But the place of a particular picture, the role it has in a man's life may well change (For instance, it may increase in importance relative to other pictures).]

"Puzzled by religion"

Wittgenstein's views about religion are not easily understood; he himself seems to have been puzzled by religion -- by what would be a philosophically correct account of it -- to the end of his life. [Being puzzled is one of the origins of philosophy, one of the things that makes a man into a philosopher.]

If we try to apply all the above, can we say what Wittgenstein meant by the word 'God'? No, I don't think so. Only that it belonged to a picture that was central to his thinking all his life (To Drury: "I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view" ), but exactly what that picture was ... It was inseparable from his ethics. And whatever God was, He was not reasonable: the good is whatever He says it is. [Nothing could be further from the ethics of Socrates than Wittgenstein, nor from his view of God; for Socrates the good was inherently good and pleased the gods because they, unlike the gods of Euthyphro's myths, were also good. (I think Wittgenstein's picture of God was much closer to Yahweh than to the "our father" of Jesus, although I don't know that, nor do I think it is knowable. Wittgenstein was not one to display tenderness; he comes across to us as austere, but that does not mean that he was of course: "... all that music has meant in my life".)]

Albert Schweitzer wrote of using the word 'God' in all "its historical definiteness and indefiniteness"; I don't know if that is what Wittgenstein did, but he may have done and been willing to have done. [Cf. Russell's Theory of Descriptions and 'God'.]

"Grammar" (or "logic" in Wittgenstein's conceptual revision) describes the use of words (PG i § 23, p. 60), but to describe the use of words is to describe a way of life (PI § 19).

Giving an account of the grammar of "belief-in" pictures

Statements of belief-in are not unverifiable statements of fact. They are not statements of fact of any kind ... And yet religious pictures resemble such statements [They have the same grammatical form as propositions that describe something, e.g. that assert the existence of something]; that is what misleads us. We need something else to compare religious "statements" to, not only to life-guiding pictures which are nonsensical to someone who does not participate in that particular way of life. I respond to some religious picture by saying:

"I don't believe in ...", but then the religious person never believes what I describe. (LC p. 55)

The difficulty is to give a clear account of the grammar of statements of belief-in. The pictures such statements suggest to us may lead us away from such an account.

What we deny is that the picture ... gives us the correct idea of the use of the word ... We say that this picture ... stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is. (PI § 305)

When I say he's using a picture I'm merely making a grammatical remark: [Editor's interpolation: "What I say"] can only be verified by the consequences he does or does not draw. (LC p. 72)

My normal technique of language leaves me. I don't know whether to say [we] understand one another or not. (ibid. p. 55) We are all using the word '...', which is a public instrument, which has a whole technique [Editor's interpolation: "of usage"]. (p. 68-69) In one sense, I understand all he says -- the English words ... I understand. (p. 55) I'd have to find out what the consequences [Editor's interpolation: "of your saying it"] are. (p. 69)

Let the consequences teach you the meaning (cf. PI II, xi, p. 212), as it were. But what are the consequences if someone says that he believes in the Second Coming (despite the 2000 years since Jesus' death) -- e.g. how is the way he lives any different from the way someone who says that he does not believe? Is it only that the first says he believes? Suppose he said that he did not believe in the articles of the creed in isolation from one another; what in believed in was Catholic Christianity, and he told us: such-and-such is how Catholic Christians live. Would that be the consequences Wittgenstein was talking about? Does it make the grammar of 'belief in the Second Coming' clear? (That you can't say.)

Wittgenstein's belief in a Last Judgment, if he did believe in that, was not like the propositions that I will receive a package in the mail next week or that the sun will rise tomorrow -- because it cannot be put to the test ("Wait and see" is not a move in this language-game). But can you say that it was not therefore a proposition -- in the sense of a prediction in this case -- at all? No one calls that an example of what we mean by the word 'prediction'. But can you say: It was not an assertion of fact at all, but instead only a picture that fitted a particular way of life? Is the meaning of that statement clear to you? Of course a picture is a proposition ("This is how things stand, if it is true"). So should we make a category of propositions and call it 'religious belief-in propositions'? Well, we are willing to speak of "grammatical propositions" even though such proposition are rules rather than statements of act, aren't we. So we are already familiar with one such category of propositions. The difficulty, I think, is that we are so used to supposing the false grammatical account of religious propositions (just as we are so used to supposing that "All words are names and the meaning of a name is the object the name stands for"). In other words:

A picture holds us captive. (cf. PI § 115)

'Religion without Belief-In' -- is the title of this section nonsense? Not if we by 'belief-in' we mean 'belief that an hypothesis is true'. But, as was just said, that is a false grammatical account of religious propositions.

On the other hand, although a religious statement isn't an hypothesis, it is not an accident that it is like one. For Jesus, his disciples and first generation of followers, wasn't the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God an hypothesis? Because when the event did not occur, subsequent generations discarded the picture for anything other than being give mouth honor in the creed. Of course, if you say that the end of this world is about to occur, that is put to the test. What of disillusioned followers who stood below the cross and said, "How can he save me when he cannot even save himself?" [Was that superstition rather than religious belief?]

A religious statement isn't an hypothesis, but it is significant that it is like one. Significant or essential? A religious statement isn't an hypothesis, but it is not an accident that it is like one. A religious statement isn't a mere utterance ("senseless sounds" such as we say that animals make); you cannot say: the feeling is all that matters, not the words [doctrine] in which it is expressed, and therefore: "What is important is the place the noise has in your life". No, it is not an hypothesis (There is no question of putting it to the test) -- but to the believer it is essential that it be like one. ['There is life on other planets' -- There is no question, given present theory and technology -- because the distances are far too great -- of putting that proposition to the test: does that make it not an hypothesis? And yet it is like one.] Why, is it in a different family of language use? -- or is that just the way Wittgenstein wishes to classify it? Religious believers themselves would not classify it this way. (But there is very little understanding among us of the grammar of our language: we use our language, but we are mostly unable to give a correct account of its grammar.)

What inclines even me to believe in Christ's Resurrection? I as it were play with the thought. If he did not rise from the dead, then ... he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and we are once more orphaned and alone. (CV p. 33 [MS 120 108 c: 12.12.1937])

But what does "believe in" mean here? What are consequences [which Wittgenstein said should show us what a particular belief-in is] of saying "I believe in Jesus' Resurrection?" That one does not feel "orphaned and alone"? Isn't an attitude toward one's life a consequence, what we call a 'consequence'?

[There may be a worthwhile idea buried under that avalanche of words.]

Wittgenstein - source limits

We must remember that Wittgenstein's thought was not static. Who would want to be held to a remark he had written in a notebook or spoken to a companion twenty or thirty years ago. One might still agree with one's earlier self; one might not. Always recall what Wittgenstein said to Drury: (1) "My fundamental ideas came to me very early in life" (DW p. ix), but (2) "Once, near the end of his life, I reminded him that in one of our first conversations he had said that there was no such subject as "theology"; and he replied, "That is just the sort of stupid remark I would have made in those days."" (Recollections p. 98) Remember also (3) that we do not in most cases know the context in which the remarks in Culture and Value were written; they were not intended for a book, but are only marginal, miscellaneous remarks (vermischte Bermerkungen).


Rationalism for Schweitzer

Oskar Kraus in his Albert Schweitzer: His work and his philosophy (tr. E.G. McCalman (1944)) wrote:

[Schweitzer] loves rationalism just as he loves Jesus, he owes infinitely much to rationalism just as he owes infinitely much to Jesus -- "I cannot analyze it, but there it is ... I desire to stand before the world as one who has thought out rationalism to its logical conclusion." (p. 72)

Jesus' ethics of love is rational, if we begin where Schweitzer begins, with "I am life that wants to live in the midst of life that wants to live", from which it will follow that all life must be regarded as being as sacred as I regard my own life. Jesus' ethics is religious, Schweitzer's philosophical, but they reach the same conclusion, once Jesus' vision of an ethical kingdom of God is allowed to float free of the eschatological presuppositions of its historical setting. And this is why Kraus can say that Schweitzer loves both Jesus and rationalism -- and loves them not as if they were in opposition to one another. [Wittgenstein and all who speak of "faith" and "belief-in" think that religion and wisdom are in opposition. (By 'wisdom' we have since at least Socrates meant something rational.)]

In a letter to Kraus (5 February 1926) Schweitzer wrote:

In spite of external differences in form I feel that Jesus' Weltanschauung is identical with mine in that which I would call the simplicity, the infinity and heroism of His ethics. Through the Weltanschauung and view of life which gradually developed in my mind I was able to understand the eschatological views of Jesus and was thus enabled to do justice to the historical Jesus.

That which attracts me so tremendously to Him is the simplicity of the rationalism inherent in His phantastic Weltanschauung. (ibid. p. 71)

That Jesus' eschatological world-picture is to us "phantastic" there is no doubt. We do not live in the expectation of the imminent end of this world nor do we believe in the reality in any other aspect of "the wonder world of the New Testament" (Bultmann). To us that is the world of myth, despite any mouth honor we may give it in our creeds.

As to Jesus' world-picture, the point will be that all of us where-ever, when-ever we live, live with historically conditioned world-pictures. The question is: Is there anything that transcends this historical conditioning? And if there is, is that what is most important to philosophy? I do not believe that in two-thousand years, if the human species exists then, that humanity will live with the world-picture of present-day science. Human beings in those days will live in a thought-world that is utterly unlike ours with respect to science. And doubtless there will be ethical questions undreamed by us for them to face precisely because of their science.

But with respect to philosophy, with respect to fundamental ethics (e.g. "reverence for truth"), must something escape that historical conditioning? The fundamental question of logic, the notion of an objective distinction between sense and nonsense in language, is not going to go away -- if it is not a scientific question and therefore not a question that science can resolve. And likewise with Socrates' distinction between "what you know and what you only think you know but do not".

What will perdure, if philosophy perdures, is reverence for the true and the good [truth and goodness], and for the thoroughgoing use of reason as the guide to how man should live his life. What the sciences will look like in two thousand years is quite beyond knowing. But can the philosophical use of reason ("wisdom") change? Between Plato and Wittgenstein there is no difference from that point of view. But the limit of philosophy -- is concept-formation. And therefore remember that 'twas modesty invented the word 'philosopher'. Logical and real possibility are not fixed once and for all time.


Oskar Kraus' criticism of Albert Schweitzer's Ethics of Reverence for Life

Such a personality as Schweitzer's demands "elemental" and "naive" solutions ... (p. 43)... he distrusted the power of reason to provide an answer to the riddles of the universe and trusted all the more in the irrational power of the will. The will, the strongest force in his spiritual life, triumphs. He desire to come to a decision by reflection and he does: he desires to find an ethical, optimistic answer to his questions and he finds one. He feels boundless love towards life, consequently reverence for life becomes the fundamental principle of ethics. (Albert Schweitzer: His work and his philosophy op. cit. p. 44)

But Kraus is conceptually mistaken, for there is no "consequently" here. Either what follows Kraus' "... and he does" and "... and he finds one" either stands to reason or it does not. Either Schweitzer's "reflections", "optimism", and "boundless love" are reasonable [justifiable by reason] or they are not.

For what Kraus says here about Schweitzer might well be said about Wittgenstein and every other philosopher; every philosopher has a "will to truth": a philosopher wants to know, to understand both elemental and final things.

The foundations of our thinking do not themselves have foundations [There is no bedrock beneath the bedrock]. But that is a statement belonging to logic. It is not an assertion that "and therefore" the foundations of our thinking are irrational (which presumably is what "the will" is; it stands in contrast to reason [as the "animal" of the "rational animal"], does it not).

It would be quite strange to say that choosing to have one's life guided by reason is an irrational ['irrational' = 'unreasonable'] choice. Although to justify that choice would presuppose the very thing [tool] it sought to justify not using [It would be a "circular argument", an argument which "begs the question", I think: 'The standard of reason shows that it is unreasonable to use the standard of reason to judge whether it is unreasonable to be unreasonable']. But the choice to have one's life guided by the irrational (e.g. "faith", myths, sorcery (soothsayers), belief in a "sacred book") cannot even pretend to justify itself.

But Kraus makes, or seems to make, the claim that reason follows from will -- i.e. that reason cannot compel us to accept it, that logic is a mere hologram: it appears to be a wall of glass, but you can put your hand right through it. Well, a frame of reference is a frame of reference, and it is only within a particular frame of reference, etc. If the choice of frame is indeed arbitrary -- and I do not know that it is -- then "the will" may choose the frame, but even then it cannot discard logic: regardless of the source of the foundations of Schweitzer's thinking, his arguments must be at the very least self-consistent, for example.

We might say: Kraus' criticism is too general, too vague even, to allow an objection to it. I can only say: I suspect that there is something not quite right about his idea.

On the other hand, Kraus makes an important point. Despite being bound, as he claims, by the demands of historical-critical theology, Schweitzer does nonetheless make judgments about the value of doctrines and points of view. When he writes "that a man should work in order to be independent" (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931 tr. Montgomery), p. 320) and in order that the community not be spiritually endangered by disorder and idleness (ibid. p. 312), and indeed throughout the chapter titled "Mysticism and Ethics", he might as easily be stating his own views as the views of Paul.

Schweitzer makes no sharp distinctions between religious and philosophic thought, rather he obscures them. (ibid. p. 45)

Schweitzer responded to this in a letter (quoted in the "Epilogue" to the second edition (1928) of Kraus' study): "To your assertion that I do not make a sufficiently sharp distinction between religious and philosophic thinking I can only reply that this has, I think, always been characteristic of me." (ibid. p. 71)

[What does this mean? That Schweitzer does not draw a sharp line between where his reasoning and experience or knowledge ends and his mysticism begins. By 'mysticism' is meant, I think, the 'claim to insight into what is not knowable' -- i.e. the claim to have "knowledge" of things that neither reason nor experience can prove to be the case.]

[The term "reverence for life"] includes the realization and enhancement of values. Thus it presupposes a knowledge of what is of value and what is most excellent ... (ibid. p. 47)

That is, if you are going to speak of ethical perfecting, then you have to have a standard of ethical perfection, and it has to be something more specific than Schweitzer's "whatever serves life is good, whatever harms life it bad", for what exactly does 'serve life' mean?

In his reverence for life Schweitzer considers only those things to be good which serve to preserve and promote life whilst destruction or injury of life is in all circumstances evil. Often, however, something may in itself by evil and yet, in view of the consequences ... (ibid. p. 48)

Schweitzer gives of this when he writes of killing a fish in order to save the life of an injured pelican.

But according to Schweitzer the good consequence does not justify the evil deed. One says, But would Schweitzer kill a dog or cat to save a pelican's life? No one believes that he would. Nor when the pelican needs an operation is Schweitzer willing to sacrifice a surgeon's time for it: the service of human life comes first. However, even if the bias of his choices is evident, does it follow that Schweitzer must make those choices on the basis of inherent worth or hierarchy among life forms? He says that all life is sacred and equal in inherent worth: no life has more ethical right to exist than another. -- Does Schweitzer show by his actions that, although all life forms are equal, "some are more equal than others"? Obviously precedence is given to the more intelligent and sensitive life forms -- i.e. the forms most able to have an interactive relationship with man -- over the less, the pelican over the fish, for example. However, it does not follow that this precedence is logically or ethically justified -- nor that it is possible to justify the choices that Schweitzer makes nor to prove that those choices are wrong. He says that the choices we make are subjective. (Is there such a thing as subjective ethics? No, but there maybe may be subjective elements in an ethics. But further, is this an ethics at all: That whatever man does, because everything he does harms some life or other, is evil, such that the good for man -- no, isn't to do evil -- but to be aware that he is doing evil? But if Socrates' ethics is based on the facts of nature, as the excellence proper and unique to man is a question of fact, then why shouldn't we say that Schweitzer's ethics is also based on the facts of nature -- not on the same facts, however, of course.)

... it involves, an ethical necessity, and, again, something my be in itself desirable and yet in view of its consequences inadvisable. This is so true that it sounds like a commonplace, but that does not give us the right to ignore it.

There does exist something equivalent to an order of rank or precedence in values in all spheres of life and there are in my opinion justified acts of preference and no system of ethics is justified in disregarding them on the ground of the saying of Jesus [-- In Mark 3.4, Jesus is criticized for curing a man with a withered hand on the sabbath, but he replies: "Is it permitted to do a good deed on the sabbath -- or an evil one? To preserve life -- or destroy it?" --] which was not meant in this general sense at all. (ibid.)

I do not see that Kraus is correct when he speaks of "an order of rank or precedence" -- as if that were an objective matter. We make choices, it is true. But that there must be a ranking system to justify our choices if our choices are to be ethical rather than unethical -- That is not obvious. Suppose Schweitzer had chosen not to kill the fish but instead to allow the injured Pelican to die -- what would prove that Schweitzer was wrong to make that choice rather than its opposite? Well, none that I can see. "There does exist something equivalent to an order of rank or precedence in values in all spheres of life ..." No, that is not self-evident or logically necessary. "... no system of ethics is justified in disregarding them ..." -- Schweitzer does not disregard that claim; instead, he denies that it is true.

Every system of ethics needs a table of values something like that which Plato attempted and Aristotle drew up. In the first volume of his Philosophy, Schweitzer himself acknowledges the necessity of reverence for truth and for this reason he rates the period of rationalism higher than the period that followed, because the latter neglected this valuation. (ibid.)

But Kraus is misstating Schweitzer's view, which was only that what Romanticism neglected was the use of reason as the guide to how we should think and live our life; it placed feeling -- i.e. the irrational -- above reason. Kraus gives only a page number (namely, p. 87), but he seems to be alluding to passages such as:

Schweitzer's view of the Enlightenment

In a great deal of the opposition which [the Romantic movement] offered to rationalism the reaction of the early nineteenth century was right. Nevertheless it remains true that it despised and distorted what was, in spite of all [the Aufklärung's] imperfections, the greatest and most valuable manifestation of the spiritual life of man that the world has yet seen. Down through all circles of cultured and uncultured alike there prevailed at that time a belief in thought and a reverence for truth. For that reason alone that age stands higher than any which preceded it, and much higher than our own.

[Note: Schweitzer was writing at the time of Fascist and Communist prohibition of individual thought: thinking was a task for the Party alone. Parties oblige their members to silence individual judgment.]

Rationalism is more than a movement of thought which realized itself at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. It is a necessary phenomenon in all normal spiritual life. All real progress in the world is in the last analysis produced by rationalism. It is true that the intellectual productions of the period which designate historically as the rationalistic are incomplete and unsatisfactory, but the principle, which was then established, of basing our [world-view] on thought and thought alone, is valid for all time. (Philosophy of Civilization, Part I: The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, tr. C.T. Campion, 2nd rev. ed. (London: 1932), Chapter 5, p. 87, 88-89)

I don't believe that Schweitzer is correct (his appreciation of Western Civilization seems very limited), because rationalism, i.e. the thoroughgoing application of reason to our experience of the world (including in ethics) which is at the same time also reverent towards the truth and towards life's meaning, did not begin in the Enlightenment -- indeed, the very symbol of rationalism is Socrates. And so I do not believe that the Age of the Enlightenment stands higher than the age of the philosophers of Greece (and Athenian democracy was surely, if there ever was such a time, an instance of "all circles of cultured and uncultured alike" belief in discourse of reason).

What may have been new about the Enlightenment was that natural science was allowed to float free of any ethical limits to it investigations, and that the social pseudo-sciences were invented ("pseudo" I say because they are value-laden; none is entirely work by the natural light of reason alone, which was the aim of the Enlightenment that all work be).

[In his Elements of Philosophy (1759)] d'Alembert [1717-1783] asserted that the eighteenth century was the century of philosophy in a special sense [In d'Alembert's view, "Locke was the creator of scientific philosophy, occupying a position which corresponded to that of Newton in physics"]. Natural philosophy had been revolutionized, and nearly all other fields of knowledge had made progress and assumed new forms. (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy (1960) I, ii, 1 (ii), (1994 ed.) p. 45)

From the principles of the secular sciences to the foundations of religious revelation, from metaphysics to matters of taste, from music to morals, from scholastic disputes of theologians to matters of trade, from the laws of princes to those of peoples, from natural law to the arbitrary laws of nations ... everything has been discussed and analyzed, or at least mentioned. (Elements of Philosophy, quoted apparently in Copleston's own translation, ibid. p. 45)

The result of this reanalysis ["this general effervescence of minds"], if I understand d'Alembert's metaphor of the tide, was that some things had been made clearer whereas other things had become more obscure (unless he means that the tide had left behind on the beach what is worthwhile, while carrying away things worthless, because on the beach there is light [cf. "Enlightenment"], whereas in the sea all is darkness).

The word 'rationalism' as both Schweitzer and I use it, does not mean the Rationalism of Descartes and his followers, which, although it denied that revelation has any place in philosophy, was in all other respects a mere continuation of the Medieval way of thinking. Instead, by 'rationalism' we mean the double tests of truth of logic and experience (not of logic alone. Of Descartes and his followers Wittgenstein said "They let the words speak to them", and I add: in a sea of impressionism (nebulosity) where whatever seemed correct was accounted as true).

The beginning of all spiritual life of any real value is courageous faith in truth and open confession of the same. The most profound religious experience, too, is not alien to thought, but must be capable of derivation from this if it is to be given a true and deep basis. Mere reflection about the meaning of life has already value in itself.... How much would already be accomplished toward the improvement of our present circumstances if only we would all give up three minutes every evening to gazing up into the infinite world of the starry heavens and meditating on it ...! (The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, p. 102-103)

Kraus: "Every system of ethics needs a table of values ..." But, again, I do not see this. Unless it simply follows from the definition of 'system', but a system cannot be defined into existence: "There is a concept, therefore there must be a corresponding reality." Not at all: there is no "must" here. Note that Schweitzer does not esteem Plato's or Aristotle's ethics in Part II of his The Philosophy of Civilization; indeed, he judges both to be failures. Nowhere that I am aware of does he "acknowledge" that ethics needs "a table of values, something like that which Plato attempted and Aristotle drew up". Quite the contrary.

Schweitzer says that the choice he makes, the fish and the pelican, the human patient and the pelican patient, is a subjective choice -- i.e. as opposed to objective in the sense of taken from a "table of valuation". [Note.--It is important to note that it is nonsense to call a choice 'subjective' unless we set criteria for what an 'objective' choice would be in that context.]

Schweitzer's extolment of rationalism is not boundless, however. For example he says that although the ethic of the later-Stoic pantheistic mysticism has an affinity with the ethic of Paul, it is "in depth and living energy ... much inferior" (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle p. 308). [I would not say that about Epictetus, for although resignation may seem to lack "living energy", that is not because it lacks "depth", and quiet movement is nonetheless movement.] Despite Schweitzer's remarks about the Enlightenment, his view is that reasoning about our existence inevitably leads to "learned ignorance", i.e. mysticism. Rationalism has its limit.

Query: difference between Plato's Apology and the Enlightenment.

The thinkers of the latter, according to Schweitzer, thought they could know everything that it is important to know: their reason [reasoning] did not tell them they knew nothing worth knowing (Apology 21d), but quite the contrary that the thoroughgoing use of reason could be extended to every area of life [and thought], yielding knowledge in them all.


Subjective Ethics, continued

This continues and perhaps amends the discussion of "Ethics is Rational" (A "Subjective Ethics" would not be Ethics). But must an objective ethics therefore exist? (What would an ethics which is rational look like?)

[Note.--There are important differences between the Lemke (1990) and Campion (1933) translations, but whether these are due to Schweitzer's editing in 1959 for the 1960 French edition or from his own editing of the German text which he made between 1930 and 1960 (Preface to Lemke's translation, p. xi-x) or to Lemke softening of the original (e.g. Campion has "natives" rather than "villagers" -- Well, of course these were not French but native African villagers), I don't know.]

The fish and the pelican

The world, however, offers us the horrible drama of will to live divided against itself. One existence holds its own at the cost of another; one destroys another. (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. A.B. Lemke (1990) p. 158)

I bought from some villagers a young osprey they had caught on a sandbank, in order to rescue it from their cruel hands. But then I had to decide whether I should let it starve, or kill a number of small fishes everyday in order to keep it alive. I decided on the latter course, but every day the responsibility to sacrifice one life for another caused me pain.

Standing, as all living beings are, before this dilemma of the will to live, man is constantly forced to preserve his own life and life in general only at the cost of other life. If he has been touched by the ethic of Reverence for Life, he injures and destroys life only under a necessity he cannot avoid, and never from thoughtlessness. ("Epilogue" [Chapter 21] p. 236)

But I wrote elsewhere that a subjective ethics is no ethics at all, and Schweitzer's principle of Reverence for Life is in the most challenging cases subjective. For example, Schweitzer's principle seems impossible to apply here: if I let the injured pelican die, then I am harming life and therefore I am unethical; and if I kill the fish to save the pelican, although I am acting morally-ethically by promoting life (the pelican's), I am still acting unethically-immorally by harming life (i.e. killing the fish). Whatever I do -- whichever choice I make -- in these circumstances is wrong according to Schweitzer's principle.

"The good conscience is an invention of the devil."

Even if I rescue a beetle from a puddle, I do this knowing that beetles feed on the roots of grass plants, which feeding is of course harmful to life (the life of the grass). Schweitzer says that what is ethical is to be aware of the decisions-choices we make, as it were to be fully conscious of our immorality in simply existing, for we must harm life, even it seems to me, when we promote it (for the cost of preserving one life will be the harm ultimately done to another).

As we normally use the word 'ethics', ethics distinguishes between right and wrong. But in Schweitzer's "ethics" there is no right, only wrong. Whatever man does is wrong; the only possible right is to be aware that one is doing wrong. Is that an ethics (by some resemblance or other, e.g. to Socratic ethics, where 'wrong-doing' is action contrary to the specific excellence that is proper to man, namely rational moral virtue, or to Kant's ethics of categorical imperatives, to act against which is wrong-doing)?

A humbling thought (Philosophy is humiliation)

About one thing, regardless, Schweitzer seems right: we cannot say that one life is of more inherent worth than another, but nonetheless to benefit rather than harm life (both one's own and that of others) is the good for man. Kraus demands a scale of value -- but there is no such scale: Life is life, and all must be regarded as sacred. Any other view is wrong on purely Socratic grounds (Apology 29a: "not thinking you are wise when you are not, not thinking you know what you don't know") -- in its arrogant presumption of knowing what we don't know and it seems cannot know about other life forms -- or how can we know [What can a human being know of the souls of fish and birds except by comparison with his own life, and in any case, just what makes the comparison to man the standard for judging the worth of other life forms]? But how is recognizing that useful to the ethical life?

Thinking is the argument between willing and knowing which goes on within me. Its course is a naïve one, if the will demands of knowledge to be shown a world which corresponds to the impulses which it carries within itself ... [That] dialog ... must give place to a debate of the right kind, in which the will demands from knowledge only what it knows.... To become ethical means to begin to think sincerely. (Part II of Philosophy of Civilization, Chapter 21: "The Ethics of Reverence for Life", tr. Campion, revised by "LMR, 1945")

That is from the historical Socrates: "to say no more than we know" (in Wittgenstein's words) -- but that is philosophy. In full contrast, religious faith is not about what we know (nor is it purely an act of "the will", as if to say: "He believes that only because that is what he wants to believe"; faith is thoughtful as well as naïve). Schweitzer here says: "There is no place in my life where I believe to be true what I do not know to be true." And so Schweitzer's religion ("all I am is a person trying to live his religion" [Marshall, An Understanding of Albert Schweitzer (1966), p. 17]) is not what is normally called 'religion' -- because it is based, not on faith in revelation, but on knowledge (albeit limited) of this world (because seeing that "I am a will-to-live in the midst of other wills-to-live" is knowledge of my life in this world).

Wilt thou "know thyself"?

Query: why do I question everything?

If that question is philosophical, what would a philosophical answer look like? Many philosophers have said why they have used the method of questioning all things, but their reasons are logically independent of their own peculiar psychology (temperament, predisposition). "Why doesn't everyone question everything?" Which condition cares for the soul" (one's very self, which is rational and moral), and which condition neglects it by not knowing itself (thereby imagining it knows what it does not know about what the good is for man)?

As if the oracle of Apollo, the patron of philosophy, had inscribed in the temple at Delphi, "Thou shalt know thyself!"


Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 22 January 2019 : 2019-01-22 (Original revision 6 September 2006)

The URL of this Web page:
https://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/language-paradox.html

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map