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Wittgenstein's "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough"

Are words such as 'ghost' and 'spirit' superstitious words? Many rituals are not done to effect [bring about] change, although others are.

Outline of this page ...

• Outline of page one's topics: Religion does not rest on opinions, and where there are no opinions there can be no error. There is progress in science, but not in magic.

Text: Ludwig Wittgenstein. "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough", ed. Rush Rhees, tr. A.C. Miles, rev. Rhees (Brynmill Pr./Humanities Pr., 1979). Part II, pages 13-18, dates from "not earlier than 1936 and probably after 1948" (p. vi). Part I, pages 1-12, dates from about 1931 (p. v).

Ritual that is not done to effect any type of change

Frazer is quoted by Rhees to use the expression "the principle of make-believe, so dear to children". (RFGB p. 4) Does this suggest that savages are childlike? [The same impulse to imagine that gives birth to belief in magic (e.g. ghosts, souls, spirits) also gives birth to "grammatical" confusion (i.e. to the failure to understand the "logic of our language"), and this connection is not accidental; the latter would not be possible (I think) without the first.] In some cases we might want to say that savages are childlike. But we also sometimes characterize ourselves that way. Which shows that to a great extent, this is a way of looking at things. It is a comparison [analogy] which we may or may not wish to make, and which may or may not be applicable (Yes, there are facts to compare in the two cases, but there is also much discretion: the concept 'childlike' is very fluid).

Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied. (ibid. p. 4)

And if I feel hungry and I eat an apple and I no longer feel hungry, did my eating the apple have an "aim"? I have been trained to use a picture of hunger as the body's cry to be nourished by food, of cause and effect. But a small child does not use that picture. Or in this case, should you say: it eats with the aim of putting an end to its feeling of discomfort? A cat does not use the word 'hunger' and it does not form the hypothesis "If I eat, then my discomfort will go away." -- A cat just eats, as does a small child. I am asking for a clarification of the meaning of 'aim' here, of course.

What makes the character of ritual action is not any view or opinion, either right or wrong, although an opinion -- a belief -- itself can be ritualistic, or belong to a rite. (ibid. p. 7)

Did Wittgenstein mean that the essence [defining characteristic] of "ritual action" -- in the sense of a definition of the word 'ritual action' -- is "not any view or opinion", but something else? But the concepts we form -- i.e. the rules we invent for using words -- not only direct our interest; they are also the expression of our interest (Philosophical Investigations § 570). And in making this remark [specification], Wittgenstein would not only be showing how he is using the word 'ritual' but also saying what it is about what we call 'ritual action' that interests him; and that what interests him is not the role of views or opinions in ritual.

But might not someone else, e.g. Frazer, choose to look at ritual from another point of view: what defines 'ritual action' is that it is based [founded on] erroneous views or opinions?

But are Wittgenstein and Frazer here offering definitions of the expression [sign] 'ritual action' -- choosing the limits for their concepts [choosing which meaning of the word 'ritual' they wish to use in their investigations] -- or are they offering theories about ritual action? The distinction between verbal and "real" definitions is not very carefully made here. Were Frazer to investigate a ritual action and not find erroneous opinions, would he still call the action 'ritual'? And if Wittgenstein were to investigate a ritual action and find that the action was based on an erroneous opinion, would he still call the action 'ritual'?

Can we say that, given that they agree about which phenomena the expression 'ritual action' is to be applied to (i.e. which actions we have historically placed in the class 'rituals' [cf. 'games': we inherited this category already filled with the activities that belong to it, leaving us very little discretion to change its membership]), Frazer and Wittgenstein can have different views or opinions (theories) about ritual action? Wittgenstein attempts to show that Frazer's explanation (identification of the "real" essence) of ritual action is incorrect, that ritual action is not based on an erroneous opinion. (According to Wittgenstein it is not based on any opinion at all.) And if Frazer has a theory about ritual action, does Wittgenstein have one too?

[It would be a mistake to say that all philosophical criticism is theoretical, and that anyone who makes a philosophical criticism is putting forward a theory. -- It would be a mistake because its meaning would be very unclear [confused, confusing]. It is important to apply the word 'theory' with great care -- that is, to always explain what we mean by calling anything a 'theory' (and not assume that this is a concept with an essence).]

Kissing the picture does not "spring from any wrong ideas about the physics of things" (RFGB p. 7). This seems obvious -- or if it isn't obvious, then nothing is obvious; we would say: if you know anything about human beings, then this is obvious to you. But on the other hand, if we say that we have a particular tribe of human beings in mind -- namely, our own tribe ("civilized people"). This shows what 'obvious' means with respect to rituals: that what is obvious and what is not is limited by context.

The human beings I am acquainted with all live in the same house, so to speak, as I do: we were all brought up by the same lame man and walk with the same limp (Plutarch: "If you live with a lame man, you will walk with a limp"). I have never seen a savage kiss a loved one's picture, and so I do not know what impression that might make on me -- that is, if I would imagine that the savage was expecting an effect or not.

Whether or not a doll with a broken leg is magical depends on the context in which we find it. Voodoo e.g.

We can imagine that someone might believe that the more they kiss the loved one's picture, the sooner they will see that person. Would that be a belief in magic or a belief in physics ['physics' in the sense of a testable hypothesis]? If that person later told us, "You know, I tried that technique and it didn't work", could Frazer say that an error had been discovered? Why shouldn't different tribes (and also the individual members of those tribes) have a wide variety of relationships to superstition?

(In these remarks Wittgenstein does not often make a connection to superstition. But there are connections among the concepts 'religion', 'ritual', 'magic' and 'superstition'. For example, there are connections of the form: all superstitions are beliefs in magic -- specifically, they express the belief that change may come or be brought about independently of the "causal nexus" of physics [i.e. of cause and effect demonstrated by tracing a mechanism] --, but not all ritual is practiced in order to effect a change. Is that clear -- and is it correct? The latter is of course the grammatical question: is this a correct account of how we use these words?)

Baptism and Washing

Baptism as washing. -- There is a mistake only if magic is presented as science. (RFGB p. 4)

That is, if it is a matter of presentation, then the mistake is made by the presenter, not by the practicer of magic. But I cannot imagine an example of how baptism could be presented as science (or "false science") rather than as magic. What would that presentation look like? [Here I am asking for a model on which to base my presentation: like at school: how do you want this assignment done?] This is a request for rules -- but above all for examples [models].

Obviously there is an analogy to be make between washing the soul clean and washing a piece of cloth clean, which is something also done in a river. So did these people regard the soul, and even the black stain (original sin) on the soul that baptism washes away, as invisible? I assure you that this is just the picture that is taught to Catholic children. However, now we are told that the people of John and Jesus's community did not believe in souls (i.e. this picture had no role in their thinking; they may never even have heard of it). And now what analogy should we use?

Language and Jargon

What we are often doing is: trying to clarify our concepts -- i.e. to turn them into useful tools by giving them an exact definition, although we do not use them with such care in everyday speech. We are, in other words, inventing jargon -- 'jargon' in the sense of grammatical rules that do not belong to the grammar of our common language. -- This is a method that Wittgenstein used. It is like inventing a new classification system -- no, it is inventing a new classification system, new categories [of understanding -- new tools to be used when trying to understand].

And magic always rests on the idea of symbolism and of language. (RFGB p. 4)

Washing away the dust on someone's body in a river is symbolic of washing away sin. The picture of the loved one that is kissed is a symbol of the loved one. The recitation of prayers is a magical use of language, a petition addressed to a god, demigod or saint, whether or not the language of the prayer is understood by the petitioner. And the priest's pronouncement that a couple is now man and wife is a magical use of language; a magical change to the couple is effected through it.

"Our Language"

Without language there would be no magic. [Is that true? This is like asking about the "thoughts" of someone who is born deaf.] And there would be very little else too. Take language away from mankind, and what do we have left?

All of us take the language that we have inherited -- the language we acquired as children -- for granted as an essential part of our personal identity -- "my own thoughts", although we must realize that they are expressed in our common language. Language is at the heart of everything we do (other than bodily functions, like eating and drinking, manual labor, etc., although, on the other hand, we also watch sunsets). If language is taken away from us, our minds quickly go blank [Try this for yourself: look around the room without allowing yourself to use language; it is actually painful]. But then where is my individual identity? Who am I if my language is not my own -- and that means: my concepts, my ideas, are not my own: "They had to be expressed in this language, if they were to be expressed at all" (cf. PI § 120). And I, like everyone else, inherited this language from other people.

Perhaps if we consider the absurd pictures that language conjures up and mystifies us with, the loss of our language may not be regarded as that great a loss. One could imagine a simpler form of life, either without language, or with only the most primitive types of language-games Wittgenstein describes. And in a way this might be a gain, according to Wittgenstein: "I am not certain I would [not] prefer ... a change in the way people live that makes all these [philosophical] questions superfluous" (CV p. 61) -- i.e. that eliminates linguistic confusion altogether. On the other hand, it would be a sub-human life without language: I do not think we would not want to return to the Garden of Eden (where Adam and Eve spoke no more than a primitive language).

Language leads us both into confusion and out of confusion into clarity. But we must underline the word 'us', because it is our language, and in this sense no one can separate himself from the rest of humanity, from other human beings. [Certainly one cannot understand psychological language if one forgets this very general fact.] This is a limit of our individualism.

We were taught, trained to use a language: we acquired language: we did not ourselves invent it. What we can invent is jargon.

"Perspicuous Presentation" ("Synopsis")

An historical explanation ... is only one kind of summary of the data -- of their synopsis. We can equally well see the data in their relations to one another and make a summary of them in a general picture without putting it in the form of an hypothesis regarding the temporal development (?or evolution). (RFGB p. 8)

Frazer gave his account the form of a development from error (magic) to a correct view (science). Question: must we choose one type of account, one way of looking at things, as opposed to another? What type of necessity would that be? Of course there is no such necessity. The question to ask oneself is: why do I want a summary of the evidence, of the data, at all -- i.e. why do I want a summary of the evidence? What is it that I want to understand and will a summary help me to do that? Maybe I don't want a summary at all.

The first question for the Philosophy of Religion is: what do I want this subject to be about -- that is, from which point of view do I want it to be written? [There are several different approaches to religion on this site.] This is the philosophical question of what the Philosophy of Religion is. What do we want from the Philosophy of Religion? This is like asking: what do we want from Philosophy ("The question of what philosophy is is itself a philosophical question")? Or better: what do I as an individual want: what am I looking for?

If I ask this question within the context of my own thinking, it is a different question from asking it in the context of exams or some other practical consideration, some artificial imposition upon my thinking, upon philosophy.

... by arranging the factual material so that we can easily pass from one part to another and have a clear view of it -- showing it in a 'perspicuous' way.

For us the conception of a perspicuous presentation is fundamental. (ibid. p. 8-9)

Comment by Rhees about the expression 'perspicuous presentation': "a way of setting out the whole field together by making easy the passage from one part of it to another". Wittgenstein's word is übersichtlich, and for this reason Rhees and Miles use the English word 'perspicuous' (although as Rhees says, no one uses that word in English). (ibid. p. 9)

The English word 'overview' [one translator suggested "bird's-eye view", which would indeed display the layout of Wittgenstein's "ancient city" of language (PI § 18); maybe 'panoptical' could be used as well] does look like the right translation for Übersicht, but also 'survey' in the sense of 'an easily understood blueprint' [because a bird cannot see the floor plan inside a building or a system of water pipes buried under the earth]. On the other hand, Wittgenstein writes:

This perspicuous presentation makes possible that understanding which consists just in the fact that we "see the connections". Hence the importance of finding intermediate links. (RFGB p. 9)

A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in "seeing connections". Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases. (PI § 122)

Until the last sentence this seems to allude to something like drawing lines to connect the common features among faces, or among games in a family-resemblance chart. But with "finding intermediate links", I do not know what Wittgenstein (or his translator) is talking about. Should we picture a railroad: transitions (transit points): how you get from here to there (and from there to there, etc.)? We want an orderly account -- e.g. not just a collection of rules (bones thrown in a box) but a system of rules (skeleton); not just a collection of transit points (names of cities with railroad stations, for instance), but instead the arrangement of these points in a grid -- like a constellation of stars.

I do not think that it simply means "transitions between one chapter of a book and the next". I cannot say what Wittgenstein is talking about here, certainly I don't know how it should be applied to a text. I do not think that the Philosophical Investigations e.g. can be called perspicuous. Is the arrangement of a book into chapters, an arrangement which can be displayed in a table of contents, to be called a perspicuous presentation?

[Should my Synopsis be classified as [-- i.e. does it match the grammatical criteria for membership in the category [concept-word, class-name] 'perspicuous presentation' --] a "perspicuous presentation" [Another translator used here the expression "synoptic view"] in Wittgenstein's sense; can that be justified? Or isn't the metaphor clearly applicable to a book's table of contents?

[There is a Table of Contents for all the Philosophy pages on this site, but it is not "perspicuous"; it is merely a complete list. A back-of-the-book index is not a perspicuous presentation, although it can be called a summary of the data. Is the table of contents at the top of this page a perspicuous representation? That question has no clear meaning -- i.e. it has no meaning.]

What I always picture when I think about Rhees' comment is the way a deck of playing cards can be laid out on a table. Among the various arrangements is that into suits, from lowest value to highest. This arrangement does make the relationships (or some of the relationships) among the cards clear. (Mendeleev's periodic table of elements is likewise an example of a perspicuous presentation, if, that is, atomic weight is what interests us about the elements. For think of all the points of view from which we may be interested in something, all the different ways it may be looked at.) -- But I never see my way beyond this. Or I picture a bird flying over a university campus, or surveying its grounds from the top of a tall tree. But again I go no further.

In the context of the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein spoke of the need for a perspicuous representation of the use of the words of our language, with a dictionary or a grammar textbook with its simple classification of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., I think, being just the opposite of that.

A philosophical problem has the form: "I don't know my way about". (PI § 123)

But what a "perspicuous representation of the use of the words of our language" would look like, I don't know.

[Question: when Wittgenstein writes "For us the conception of a perspicuous presentation is fundamental", who does he mean by 'us'? Does he mean: those who think as Wittgenstein does? or does he mean: those who have been raised in our intellectual tradition? or something else?]

'Ghosts' versus 'Souls'

Wittgenstein calls the word 'ghost': "a familiar superstitious word" (RFGB p. 8). -- Well, don't we call [classify] belief in ghosts a superstition? But then is a belief in souls, which are very like ghosts (I was taught to call the Holy Spirit the "Holy Ghost"; the Belgian priest in Haiti from whom I received First Communion was a Holy Ghost Father). A religious belief in souls e.g. (a "venial sin" only blackens part of the soul, but a "mortal sin" is a total blacking of the soul [I do not know if children are still trained to think this way, but these were the pictures I was given (and Wittgenstein, who was brought up as a Catholic by his mother, would also have been given)]) -- is this also to be called superstition? Then is the word 'soul' to be classified as belonging to the part of speech superstition-word? I don't know.

Do we call every instance of magic superstition? The only answer is that different people define [specify the membership rules of] some of the categories we use differently: there are variations here. The word 'superstition' expresses contempt of course: to call something that is to express a value judgment. (Some people call [categorize] all religion superstition. Should they? Is this not only a matter of different points of view, ways of looking at things? forms of life?)

... nothing shows our kinship to those savages better than the fact that Frazer has at hand a word as familiar to us as 'ghost' or 'shade' [Wittgenstein used the English language words in his German text] to describe the way these people look at things.

What is queer in this is not limited to the expressions 'ghost' and 'shade', and too little is made of the fact that we include the words 'soul' [Wittgenstein wrote: 'Seele'] and 'spirit' [Wittgenstein wrote both the German and English words in his German text: 'Geist' ('spirit') ; 'Geist' can also be translated as 'mind'] in our civilized vocabulary.

A whole mythology is deposited in our language. (ibid. p. 10)

Then it would seem that, at least at this point in his thinking -- [Remember Wittgenstein's statement to Drury: "That is just the sort of stupid remark I would have made in those days" (Recollections p. 98); these remarks date from 1931, at most two years after Wittgenstein earliest conversations with Drury] -- Wittgenstein was regarding the words 'soul' and 'spirit' also as superstition-words. And, indeed, are they not? [What you can say is that they are magic-words.] If we treat them as names of objects, then indeed they are. That is to say: if we imagine pictures [of invisible objects], as we say "invisible spirits", "invisible souls". The addition of the word 'invisible' shows that we are using the word 'soul' as the name of an object. That is, that we are using a picture here. [And if a child in the Catholic Church were asked to draw a soul, it would draw a human figure and place a shape in the chest cavity on which it would make black marks to indicate the unconfessed sins a person has committed. The child understands that "the soul is invisible", e.g. that if you cut open a person's chest you would not see their soul, of course, but its natural way of representing "the invisible" is to make it visible. And, just like children, adults draw lines above a magnet to indicate the "magnetic field".]

But are we when we use the words 'soul' and 'spirit' following an analogy suggested by the grammar of the part of speech name-of-object? You might say: we are discarding many grammatical rules, too many to justify saying that we are doing that, e.g. rules of size, shape, color. But does that we are using a picture here justify calling this superstition? Later Wittgenstein was to write: "superstition is more like false science" (CV p. 72). In which case, there is no reason to call the Catholic soul superstition or its use of the word 'soul' a superstition-word. (Of course, it does not follow from this one example that every use human beings make of the word 'soul' does not express a superstition.)

Wittgenstein's classification (account of the part-of-speech) of the word 'soul' as a 'superstition-word'. -- Is that the only possibility? On the one hand, there is Plato's Phaedo 64c: death being the condition of the body once the soul is released from it. But on the other hand there is Phaedo 81c-d where Plato speaks of the ghosts which hover "above tombs and graveyards ... shadowy apparitions which have actually been seen there". (A man who is already afraid when he enters a graveyard, which was not a place the ancient Greeks ever liked to visit, at night, may see a ghost in the shadows of the leaves of trees moved by the breeze or even in his own shadow as cast by the moonlight.) The latter text does suggest that the word 'soul' is there a superstition-word.

... too little is made of the fact that we include the words 'soul' and 'spirit' in our civilized vocabulary. Compared with this, the fact that we do not believe our soul eats and drinks is a minor detail. (RFGB p. 10)

I don't know (whether we should call it a minor detail or not). When at his trial Socrates suggested the possibility of an afterlife (life after death), when he suggested that picture, was he being superstitious? (Was Plato superstitious (Plato and Orphism)?) What are we calling 'superstitious'? Was the Greek picture of the shades in Hades (Odysseus visits them) -- are we calling that superstition? (I am asking for a definition. But I am also asking about the point of view suggested by Wittgenstein's system of classification, the categories he is using here.) I don't know what to say here: -- is too little made of it?

["A whole mythology is deposited in our language" (ibid. p. 10). If the above are implicit cases, the following seems to be an explicit case: In the Spanish language, to say that someone is dead is to indicate a temporary (estar versus ser) rather than a permanent state, "because in the Middle Ages they thought they all were going to resurrect". However, that form of language no longer expresses an opinion (i.e. religious myth); it is instead the rule of correct grammar: you cannot use the permanent form to express a contrary opinion. (Use of the permanent form as in Max Frisch's Homo Faber [tr. Bullock (London: 1959), p. 54] is simply ignorance: Frisch has "Nuestro señor es muerto" (which sounds blasphemous) whereas it should be "El patrón está muerto". It is a blunder that should not have gotten past the book's editor.)]

When Aristotle and Plato ask what the essence of man is, and Plato answers that man's immortal soul is his essence, is Plato's use of the word 'soul' [psyche] superstition? No, and it is not religion either; it is metaphysical speculation, despite that being something Wittgenstein is unwilling to recognize.

'Myth', 'Theory', 'Concept'

An imaginative picture, a construct as in Plato, can be compared to a myth, because it is a picture that is consistent with the facts of experience but not verifiable by them. Not all myths are of that type, for many myths are not consistent with the facts of experience. (None are verifiable by experience: if a picture is verifiable by experience, then it is not what we call a myth -- i.e. it does not belong to the grammatical category 'myth'.)

A whole mythology is deposited in our language.

But contrast that early remark with Wittgenstein's later remark: "Our naive, normal way of speaking" (Z § 223) does not show you a "theory of the soul" -- but only our use of the word 'soul'.

Or is that only the "Wittgenstein's logic of language" (according to me) rendering? Because Anscombe's translation of Wittgenstein's remark, which is apropos of the grammar of our word 'seeing', has: "... does not show you a theory but only a concept of seeing". But if Anscombe's rendering is correct then what distinction is Wittgenstein making here? For if "a mythology deposited in our language" = "a mythology deposited in our concepts", then what is the difference between a concept and a theory -- if by 'theory' we mean Drury's "models, pictures, maps" (DW p. 99-100) -- i.e. imagination added to the facts (which is another way of saying that what we call a 'theory' is an imaginative picture, i.e. a myth, used to organize a selection of facts, or sometimes to give an account of the origin of those facts)? There appears to be no difference. But if Wittgenstein was not talking nonsense, then what did he mean by the word 'concept' here? I don't know, nor do I know whether it was clear to Wittgenstein either:

The word 'concept' is too vague by far. (RFM vii § 45, p. 412)

That is why I have defined that word as I do ('concept' = 'use of language' -- i.e. 'rules of grammar'), in order to maintain an objective distinction between sense and nonsense. (Of course it is not the word = sign that is vague, but the concept -- i.e. rules for the use of that word -- that are vague: the game is not played by strict rules, but by broad, all-too broad, rules.)

Now to return to the question of how we use the word 'soul' ... Maybe it is this way: compare our use of that word with "what we mean" (CV p. 50) by the word 'God' (cf. Russell's "Theory of Descriptions" q.v.).

Personification of Death

We should distinguish between magical operations and those operations which rest on a false, over-simplified notion of things and processes. For instance, if someone says the illness is moving from one part of the body to another, or if he takes measures to draw off the illness as though it were a liquid or a temperature. He is then using a false picture, a picture that doesn't fit. (RFGB p. 5)

Wittgenstein makes a distinction which Frazer does not: magic versus error ("false science"); Frazer says that all magic is error, but Wittgenstein says this is not a correct account of the grammar of our language: if we describes the phenomena we call 'magic' we do not find error -- or we do not find error in all cases. (Wittgenstein will make a distinction between these two types of cases and refuse to classify cases of error in the category 'magic' -- i.e. Wittgenstein will invent a grammatical rule that does not belong to our common language [i.e. he will invent jargon]. Frazer thinks he has a theory of development [of human knowledge], and Wittgenstein says that this "theory" is not consistent with all the evidence. [I have a sense that Wittgenstein was expressing what he was inclined to regard as "the essence of magic", but I may be wrong. It would, however, have been a definition, not a theory like Frazer's (which claims that the essence of magic is error).]

Imagine (I do not know the actual history) a "false picture", an error, as the origin of the use of leeches. But, then, how would we account for the persistence of this practice long after "the end of our life as primitives"? I can describe at least two possibilities. One is that the discovery that leeches have a good effect [Some medical doctors still use them], which simply drawing [draining] blood off does not, was an accident of history: here what began as magic ended in a useful discovery. (This would not be a justification for saying that magic is really a form of hypothesis-making, as Frazer may have said; for in very few instances has magic resulted in discoveries of this kind. Rather, in most cases magic has simply been replaced by another "form of life" -- way of thinking [living]: just as man's religion does not evolve into science: rather, he just gives up going to church, for instance.)

The other possibility would be that the application of leeches was based on an hypothesis, such as our textbooks imagine that the grafting of plants was: the observation was made that some limb of a living tree cut and pushed into the trunk of another living tree sometimes sprouted new growth; and on this observation experiments in grafting were based. Any magical view of this was not essential to the practice of grafting: grafting is a practical skill of horticulture, just as -- although he may say prayers over his fields -- the farmer still relies on plowing, sowing, tending and harvesting according to what works or doesn't work. Again, the woman who makes the Sign of the Cross over her bread dough may believe that it will not rise if she does not practice this ritual; nonetheless, she takes care to cover the dough and set it in a warm place out of drafts to rise. That is, here we could distinguish cases where magic accompanies a skilled task, and cases where there is no skilled task for it to accompany. An example of the latter would be making a pilgrimage to a holy place, hoping for the cure of an illness.

That is, the second possibility is: that if the application of leeches was originally based on an hypothesis, e.g. if someone had observed that a reduction of swelling was the occasion of a return to health, and had tried various means to actively reduce the swelling, such as simple bleeding, or applying leeches, and had discovered that leeches tended to have the desired effect -- or, more simply, if someone had discovered a leech on the body of someone who was recovering from an illness and has decided to try deliberately applying leeches to the bodies of other people who were ill, -- this would have been science all along, never magic.

But why shouldn't science and magic be practiced side by side -- aren't they practiced side by side: e.g. many doctors attend church, and many church-goers go to doctors.

In magic the leech could be pictured as sucking the illness out of the person. The illness might or not be personified ("The illness is sucking the life out of that person" -- This form of expression still belongs to our educated vocabulary).

About leeches: could you say: here you have an hypothesis that came out of the practice of magic? An "explanation" may be suggested by anything; -- but what makes an explanation into an hypothesis is providing the method of verification, of testing, that is to be followed.

But even if leeches had not shown themselves to be beneficial, the practice of using leeches could have continued among primitive people, if that is, the application of leeches had begun life as an act of magic rather than as an hypothesis. Because: if you test an hypothesis and the result is negative, you must throw the hypothesis out (or radically modify it); but magical practice is not put to the test, and so need never be thrown out.

Imagine, on the one hand, that after sucking the blood leeches died and the sick person got better (This already has the form of an hypothesis). But, on the other hand, imagine that the people simply killed the leech after using it to draw blood: this would be ritual killing: it would symbolize the transference of death from one body to another. That would be magic. And there might be countless reasons given for why sometimes the sick persons recovered after the killing of the leech and sometimes they did not. The difference between a scientific hypothesis and a magical explanation is that the latter is infinitely plastic: nothing can disconfirm it: it is a type of tautology.

In magical healing one indicates to an illness that it should leave the patient. (RFGB p. 6)

The leech might be regarded as a magical agent, as a god, or as an instrument of the gods. -- That would be magic, what we call 'magic'.

Rather than 'anthropomorphism' Wittgenstein uses the word 'personification': "the principle is that of personification" (ibid. p. 4).

To cast out death (ibid. p. 10). We could imagine a tribe who, if they were told the story of Jesus's raising of Lazarus, would say that Jesus had cast death out of Lazarus's body. (As if death were the name of something, or of someone -- This would be a case of personification [not as a "literary device", but in the tribe's magic-mythology], of belief in magic. (Or should I say 'belief in' here? That would simply mean here that: in this tribe's way of looking at things, there is a place for magic, and casting out death is an instance of this magic.) But you cannot call it an error. To call it an error you would have to be able to show a path, a way, out of the error, to a correct view of things.

Here, instead, we have a picture which is consistent with all states of affairs; it cannot, logically, be an error, because it cannot be disconfirmed; at most, missionaries might try to persuade the tribe to stop using this pagan picture. (Wittgenstein: "our civilized vocabulary".) The most you might do is to try to persuade the tribe that it is not necessary to use this picture of death as a person (personification). [On the other hand, the Gospel does use the metaphor [picture] of a "thief who comes in the night [And what does he steal if not your life] ... you know not the day nor the hour". In this case, we would say that the personification is a literary device ... an idea the tribe might or might not understand.] To persuade the tribe to reject this type of explanation ("The man died because death came to dwell in his body, but Jesus cast death out") -- or could you show that the picture is not necessary? For example, if we had a technique for revitalizing long dead corpses, the tribe could always call this a technique for casting death out of the body ("The dead body decays because it is eaten up by death").

The point is that if there were any question of verification, it would not be a matter of magic, what we classify as magic. So you cannot say, as Frazer does, that magic is [at least, in all cases] a type of error. If there is an essence of magic (i.e. if an essential definition can be given), this is it. [But that is still too broad. Are we going to call pain magic? "How do I verify that I have a toothache?" Well, I don't.]

If magic were a mistake or an error, then there would also be a path along which you could lead its practicers away from it. Such a path is given by verification, but in magic there is no verification.

Word Magic

And when I read Frazer I keep wanting to say: All these processes, these changes of meaning, -- we have them here still in our word-language. If what they call the "Corn-Wolf" is what is hidden in the last sheaf; but also the last sheaf itself and also in the man who binds it, we recognize in this a movement of language with which we are perfectly familiar. (RFGB p. 10-11)

In this case you can say that three things are grouped together by giving them the same name ("Corn-Wolf"). Of course the most common way to group things together is by assigning them common names (a single name that they all hold in common). But in this case there is something else as well. "Corn-Wolf" is not only given three things as a common name: it is also given to them as a common baptism: it is used to make these three things identical.

Another example: the man who does the job of forming the iron shoes for horses, who works in the forge/smith becomes known as 'a blacksmith' (It is an important point that he was not born one), and we refer to him as 'the blacksmith' rather than as Mr. So-and-so. You could say that we are seeing something magical in this title, as though this man had undergone a metaphysical change (something we cannot see) as well as acquired the knowledge, skills and strength to do this type of work. Someone who does farm work, who tends field-crops, becomes known as 'a farmer'. And you really can say that there is a magical picture here [cf. initiation rites, baptism]. And it is not just that a laborer's body is shaped by the work he does. Because even if he is transformed by age, we still refer to him as 'a farmer'.

We are engaging in word magic here: we are trained as children to engage in this word magic by identifying a person with his occupation. [The ease with which this is done I want to connect to our feeling of sensing a soul in the uncrumpling paper, although not everyone will necessarily see a connection here.] When we look at these titles, do we not have a sense that there is something magical when we identify the man with his occupation: think of the title 'medical doctor' We do not say 'Oh, that man does this-or-that type of work', we say 'He is a this or a that.' -- I wonder if language creates this magic or if magic creates this language [form of expression], although my suspicion [There is nothing to verify here] is that language is to blame.

I really do want to compare metaphysics to magic (as Wittgenstein once suggested, but rejected): in both cases there are hidden realities, invisible things; the impossibility of verification makes possible the illusion of insight into life's mysteries. -- And the desire to have knowledge of these hidden things, whether in magic or metaphysics, I think springs from the same source [our desire to understand or control things that are beyond our power to understand or control; there is also the appeal of secrets known only by a few, not by the many]. Of course, this is just one way of looking at this; the way I am inclined to look at it [The making of any particular comparison is discretionary (a matter of choice: of inclination or disinclination; the comparison is there to be made: but nothing can force me to give any particular one a place in my thinking)]. Word magic I could also call "word metaphysics".

We might say "every view has its charm," but this would be wrong. What is true is that every view is significant for him who sees it so (but that does not mean "sees it as something other than it is"). And in this sense every view is equally significant. (RFGB p. 11)

Or equally insignificant. That is, all points of view stand on the same level: here it is not a question of truth and falsity. (This is of course a grammatical remark. Views might be likened to tautologies.)

Not Acting from Opinions

The characteristic feature of primitive man, I believe, is that he does not act from opinions he holds about things (as Frazer thinks). (RFGB p. 12)

An opinion may be mistaken (erroneous), and a mistake can be discovered and set right: an hypothesis can be disproved and rejected or modified. But Wittgenstein says that primitive man's beliefs -- the pictures he uses -- are not opinions; error is not possible. Does this depend on the examples we bring forth? We could certainly say that [among us] kissing a picture of a loved one is not an act based on opinions, that is to say: a belief about the nature of things, about cause and effect for example (of any kind of cause and effect, whether magical or natural). But maybe we would not say this about all examples we might bring forward. -- But what are we disagreeing about: a definition of the word 'magic' or the nature of primitive man's thinking? The first is a linguistic convention, the second an extra-linguistic fact ... although remember that "facts are not like seashells you pick up on the beach [i.e. "bare objects" independent of context, preconceptions, prior knowledge]; facts are theory laden" [or, in many cases, we might say: concept laden] (N.R. Hanson; or in Kant's words: percepts without concepts are blind).

Why shouldn't an absurd belief, an absurd view of things, although not one where error can be shown, be the basis on which a primitive man acts? For example, the personification of death: the belief there are men who are able to magically cast death out (as Christ is pictured casting out demons). Can't this be regarded as an opinion -- i.e. is this not called 'opinion'? (I really don't know if this is a verbal or a "real" dispute)?

I do not think that in all cases you would be able to say that all we have here are pictures which are detached from any view of causality, although we may be talking of course about magical causality. In many cases you could say that what primitive people do, and also what we do, involves the holding of an opinion. There is a difference between lighting a candle because you find it romantic, and lighting a candle before a statue of a saint because you believe that this will serve to keep your petition active (as if the candle continued praying in your place) after you had left the church. Is the latter not to be called an opinion? But if I place flowers in a vase before the saint in exactly the way that I may kiss a picture of a loved one, not expecting to effect any change whatever by doing it, does this not still express an opinion, a belief? [By 'an opinion' did Wittgenstein mean 'a belief with practical consequences' such as an hypothesis?] "An expression of love." (And belief in saints is belief in magic.)

But the question is, of course: what did Wittgenstein mean by the word 'opinion'? A verifiable proposition, or at least a case of probability? "Can't this be regarded as an opinion?" -- But would that be Wittgenstein's point: the question is: does the belief have to be given up if such-and-such happens or doesn't happen? You could say that: an "opinion" that is consistent with any and all states of affairs is no opinion. And it cannot be an error either. But this is only a rule [a definition] for using a word. [My suspicion is that Wittgenstein did not mean merely this, that his objection to Frazer's view was not simply based on the relation of verification to error (i.e. the connection between these two concepts).]

Why does [a] man listen to music? It may be at times that he is upset and wishes to be comforted by it. Sometimes a man might say that. But other times the only answer is: not for any reason. Again you could say "It is there -- like our life: human life is like that [this is just what human beings do]." -- But do I want to compare listening to music to magic? Only in the sense that the answer is (sometimes): "not for any reason". Wittgenstein: "It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied." (RFGB p. 4)

"There like our life"

You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable).

It is there -- like our life. (OC § 559)

What has to be accepted, the given, is -- so one could say -- forms of life. (PI II, xi, p. 226)

You could say that the fact that the person will go on lighting candles regardless of whether or not his petition is "answered" shows that this is not an opinion.

The concept 'opinion' naturally is (i.e. according to our held-in-common grammar, common practice of using this language) as vague (ill-defined) as the concept 'concept' -- unless we redefine it, which is to say, turn it into jargon [as e.g. I did when I defined the word 'concept' as: a set of rules for using a word].

Without Practical Consequences

... towards morning, when the sun is about to rise, people celebrate rites of the coming of day, but not at night, for then they simply burn lamps. (RFGB p. 12)

So you could say that these rites, again, are not done with any aim or objective: they are not done to bring about any effect. There is no why-because here: human beings just do act this way: "We can only describe and say, human life is like that." (ibid. p. 3) Or, in other words, sometimes we can say of a man [mankind, human beings] that he just does things for their own sake, for the sake of doing them.

In the context of not acting from opinions -- [which shows that by 'opinion' Wittgenstein means what Frazer calls: a belief that you can convert from error to a corrected view should you discover that you are in error] --, Wittgenstein gives the example of the Rain King to whom the people appeal for rain when the rainy season of the year comes, and he says in effect that if these people really believed that the king could make rain, they would appeal to him to make it rain during the dry season when their crops are withering:

But surely this means that they do not actually think that he can make rain, otherwise they would do it in the dry periods in which the land is "a parched and arid desert". For if we do assume that it was stupidity that once led the people .... (ibid. p. 12)

Imaginary Consequences

'Stupidity', in the sense of 'credulity' is, like 'superstition', not always an easy word to apply. For example, there is the example of the illiterate poor paying a man to read prayers over their dead in the cemetery of the village (Don Giacomo Venditti of Gambatesa). -- Do you want to say that these people were stupid? They had certainly not been educated not to behave this way. -- But have we been reasoned away from behaving this way, or have we been trained not to behave this way? In which case, do you want to call this a case of stupidity? But also it is obvious that these people, who were very poor, would not have paid to have these prayers said if they did not believe that having these prayers said was of benefit to their dead loved ones. This you cannot call a ritual that is divorced from opinions about the efficacy of certain acts, or opinions about cause and effect. They have a picture of "ultimate reality" about the dead and about God. And they act on the basis of this. Is that not "acting from opinions they hold about things"? Or is Wittgenstein talking about this from a practical point of view only? An actual measurable effect, not merely a figurative or mythological effect. I think so.

[I must confess that 'opinion' and 'theory' are demon words for me: they cover up a multitude of confusions with their vagueness (ill-defined meanings, sketchy grammars). I am never clear about what people intend by them, and therefore I regard them as bad. They ought to be withdrawn from the language for a good long while, because as it is they seem to have little function other than to conjure up "fog and filthy air". (This is a case where you must say: unless we turn this word into a jargon-word ["further specify its meaning"], it is nonsense.)]

"The world is there"

I began in my earlier book to talk about the "world" (and not about this tree or table). (RFGB p. vi)

Can we talk about "the world"? Can I speak of it as a whole? as if I were to take an eraser to the entire drawing on a sheet of paper, to erase the whole world ("Seeing the world as a limited whole is the mystical"). Or am I to say that I cannot also erase myself? But when I fall asleep am I not as it were erased?

Can we talk about "the world as a whole" -- i.e. is this language nonsense, an undefined combination of words? If we are willing to call a picture a sense. It does not seem to me that the difficulty is in giving a sense to 'There something rather than nothing' (We can invent pictures) but in giving a sense to 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' in setting criteria for an answer to this question (or as I used to write: "question-sign", sounds or ink-marks with the form of a question): "Begin at the beginning of all beginnings." -- I think this command is nonsense.

Saying this is to recognize that this picture is not hypothetical: it cannot be put to the test, because of course we ourselves refuse to invent a test (define the word 'why' in this context). We are here trying to follow a model of explanation that has no application in this case. Wittgenstein wrote: "instead of talking about this tree or this table" (ibid. p. vi); -- and here you really can ask about the origin of these things. But there is no way to ask about the origin of "the world" itself, the whole thing. [What can be asked of a part, it need not be possible -- i.e. defined language -- to ask of the whole.] This language is simply undefined.

"But if all that is lacking is a definition, then why not give these words one?" This is where we want to say: "Because no definition could express the meaning of what we mean by the question." But in logic a meaning that cannot be put into words is no meaning (i.e. is nonsense); that is the meaning of the word 'meaning' that Wittgenstein chose in order to make an objective [public] distinction between sense and nonsense.

I would say: if you can picture the whole (as if it were a drawing on a sheet of paper), then you can erase the whole as well.

And why should such a picture be only an imperfect rendering of a spoken doctrine? Why should it not do the same service as the words? And it is the service which is the point. (PI II, iv, p. 178g)

What the picture does not do is justify asking about the origin of "the world", about the why of its that-ness. Something that may have an end need not necessarily have a beginning. Of course that picture -- the picture of an event without a beginning -- loses its charm very quickly (because the picture of an event without a beginning does not explain anything; it simply puts a halt to explanation). And, in any case, I am not sure that we are asking about the world's "origin".

"Why is there anything rather than nothing?" -- Should we regard the asking of this question as a ritual? something which does not extend beyond itself, something like magic (self-mystification)?

Metaphysics and Magic

I think now that the right thing would be to begin my book with remarks about metaphysics as a kind of magic.

What it is that is deep about magic would be kept. (Written in June 1931; RFGB p. v-vi)

Wittgenstein marked this off in his notebook as "bad". But we might make a comparison here (whether or not it was the one Wittgenstein had in mind). For metaphysics is like magic: there are pictures, but these pictures are not hypotheses (propositions or conditionals to be empirically tested; they are not pictures that can [grammatically] be compared with reality [because in these cases no method of comparison is defined ("we ourselves made it unverifiable", Zettel § 259)]): and like magic, metaphysics satisfies a longing in us for an understanding of the reality that underlies [or lies beyond/transcends] the "world of appearance" -- the natural world in which we seem to perceive no higher meaning than physics ("purposeless activity"). And finally because like magic: metaphysics is powerless, pictures for which there is no fulcrum that allows us to get any work done -- because, again, in neither case is verification possible. And it is verification that makes it possible for us to either make it rain or to solve [or not solve] the riddles of existence.


Notes about
Wittgenstein's "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough" - Page 1 of 2

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