book review: Theology after Wittgenstein

TheologyAfterWittgensteinIn his book entitled Theology After Wittgenstein, Fergus Kerr, O.P., presents a compelling interpretation of the later writings of twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kerr portrays Wittgenstein as a man who challenged the very way in which the Western mind understands the human person and meaning.

The book begins by examining the Western habit of adopting a “mentalist-individualist” view of the self (20) – that is, the habit of understanding the self as an independent, self-reflective, non-corporal intelligence that enjoys immediate access to meaning. This view of the self dichotomizes body and soul as well as person and community. Theologically speaking, then, the mentalist-individualist self is a “worldless ego” (23), a radically ineffable source of meaning that adopts the status of deity.

Taking Descartes as his starting point, Kerr highlights the presence of the “mentalist-individualist’” perspective in the writings of a number of modern theologians (including Karl Rahner). According to Kerr, the desire to define the self in terms of cognition and isolation stems from the spiritual desire to achieve an absolute and objective notion of reality through the transcendence of all that is in the world.

Before proceeding to the second section of the book, Kerr spends a chapter providing a hermeneutic to be used in examining the later writings of Wittgenstein. Central to this hermeneutic is the definition of “forms of life”(Lebensformen) as the basic patterns of human interaction that fashion the basis for meaning in the world. For Wittgenstein, the self does not possess meaning, but experiences meaning through the “forms of life” – that is, through the context of interaction with a human community. Kerr calls this perspective the “non-metaphysical” view of the self (52).

The main body of the book interprets Wittgenstein’s own approach to the interrelationship of self, the world, and meaning. For Wittgenstein, one’s thoughts cannot be isolated from one’s context in the world. The way in which one thinks is determined by the whole complex of human interactions in space and time – that is, by the totality of the “forms of life” that make up human existence. This approach to reality challenges the mentalist-individualist definition of the self as an entity distinct from the body and the world of experience (98). Communication between human beings consists of sharing common “forms of life” or patterns of interaction through which meaning is intuitively understood. Wittgenstein is not adopting a behaviorist view that would deny human intelligence or rationality; he is simply asserting that intelligent behavior arises from interaction between persons. The fact that a person may act reasonably yet without reflection demonstrates that intelligence is not a function of an individual’s mental activity but has its basis instead in shared “forms of life.” Meaning is not found either in the world of ideas (the idealist perspective) or in sense data (the realist approach), but only in the interactive patterns of a human community.

In the final section of the book, Kerr asserts that the “hidden theological agenda” (147) of Wittgenstein is to make the reader realize that humans have no way of grasping what God is except through signs in the world – language, bodily gesture, etc. Beliefs are not simply ideas about God that are subsequently given visible expression; rather, experiences and activity give rise to belief. Kerr contends that the religious impulse within human beings, which is something “deep and sinister in us” (162), would be a good starting point for theology. He fleshes out this proposal in the last chapter of the book by offering specific theological applications of Wittgenstein’s ideas. In the field of morality, Wittgenstein’s perspective might allow for a greater appreciation of the connection between intention and action. Understanding the person in terms of potential for sharing in the “forms of life” (rather than in terms of consciousness) might lead to a more compelling sense of respect for the dignity of human life. New insights into the atonement of Christ could be explored by examining the phenomenon of the “scapegoat” in human communities. Moreover, the Wittgensteinian perspective might serve as a reminder of the natural, historical and finite quality of human existence and theological formulations. In summary, the philosophical thought of Wittgenstein may provide a needed challenge to the whole mentalist-individualist bias that informs the way theology is expressed.

The book intends to initiate students of theology into a way of understanding Wittgenstein that may provide a new framework for theological discourse. Kerr employs a contextual approach throughout the book; quotations from Wittgenstein’s own documents are placed alongside the writings of associates (particularly M. O’C. Drury), contemporaries (such as Bertrand Russell), and critics. On more than one occasion Kerr introduces an interpretation of Wittgenstein as a sort of foil for developing his own exposition. For example, Kai Nielsen’s concept of “Wittgensteinian fideism” provides Kerr with a point of entry into an alternative reading of the “forms of life.” Similarly, after mentioning Bernard Williams’ claim that Wittgenstein is an idealist, Kerr spends several pages demonstrating Wittgenstein’s dissatisfaction with the idealist paradigm of the world. The contextual information used in the book effectively orients the reader to the world of Wittgenstein.

The objectives of the book are simultaneously ambitious and humble; although Kerr intends to articulate a revolutionary paradigm for theological inquiry, he will settle for sparking interest in the writings of Wittgenstein: “Even if my thesis is wrong, in detail or completely, I have quoted so much from Wittgenstein himself that readers new to his work will surely be attracted to explore further, to reach their own conclusions” (viii). Moreover, the author of this book does not pretend to make sense of every phrase of Wittgenstein. Although Kerr clearly has a great appreciation for some of the insights of this Austrian philosopher, he is able to maintain a critical stance toward Wittgenstein’s writing as a corpus: “Wittgenstein had thoughts that were deep, together with others that seem tentative and even, to my mind, quite idiotic” (35). This critical distance, when coupled with the disclaimer about the thesis of the book, helps the reader to invest in Kerr’s project.

Although the book does not expressly speak of theology in relation to Wittgenstein until chapter seven, Kerr consistently leads the reader toward this theme through the use of theologically suggestive phrases such as “the craving for unmediated encounter” (73). For this reason, by the time the author presents a chapter with the audacious title of “Wittgenstein’s Theological Investigations,” the reader is prepared to apply Kerr’s theological hermeneutic to the few passages by Wittgenstein that explicitly speak about God.

I enjoyed the book, primarily because it challenged me to become more aware of my philosophical presuppositions. The book raised practical questions for me: Do I tend to think of myself more in terms of distinction from the world than participation in it? Do I
associate my ideas with self-contained cognitive processes rather than with human interactions? Are my ideas really as private as I sometimes imagine?  How sizable is thedistance between my experience and the experience of another person? Over the course of the Clinical Pastoral Education internship this past summer, I often heard (and, indeed, found myself repeating) the cliché that a person can never honestly say that one knows what someone else is experiencing. After reading Kerr’s book, I will be less smug about adopting the position that my thoughts and feelings are entirely incommensurable with those of others.

As much as I appreciated the book as a whole, I found the first chapter to be incredibly frustrating. As Kerr was accumulating his evidence of the mentalist-individualist perspective in the works of modem theologians, I felt as though I had unwittingly been pulled into some vicious theological debate to which I was unprepared to make intelligible response. It seemed to me as though a certain hermeneutic of suspicion was being applied to a series of texts with which I was completely unfamiliar. My overall impression after the first chapter was that Kerr had put the entire modern theological tradition on trial without an adequate defense. Only after Kerr introduced Wittgenstein’s religious point of view in the second chapter was I able to make an earnest effort to sympathize with Kerr’s thesis. Inmy opinion, as a matter of literary courtesy an author should explain the basis for a given hermeneutic before applying it to the work of a number of authors. Perhaps Kerr wants to engage the reader in the process of discovering the mentalist-individualist bias. This method of exposition would mirror well one of the central ideas in the book – namely, that thoughts and ideas arise only in the context of interaction (in this case, ‘interaction’ with various theological texts). However, I did not think I was being asked to enter a disinterested process of investigation but to adopt a certain critical attitude that had not been sufficiently explained to me in the preface.

For me, the book was definitely worth reading. Theology after Wittgenstein not only provided me with an engaging and coherent introduction to the work of Wittgenstein, but it also offered a welcome challenge to the way I am accustomed to think about the human person and meaning. I appreciated Kerr’s emphasis on the importance of knowing one’s philosophical commitments, as well as his moderate approach toward challenging the mentalist-individualist view. He has no illusions about overcoming the metaphysical way of thinking about the self: “Since [the idea of the detached ego] is far from being simply wrong, the critique that is required is more a matter of making different connections than one of wholesale rejection” (8). Kerr simply emphasizes the importance of attentiveness to the metaphysical view and to its dangers: “The only way to resist, or even recognize, the sway of the metaphysical way of thinking is to learn to watch our language about ourselves” (187). The very phrase Kerr uses to describe this vigilance – ‘watching our language about ourselves’ – suggests the metaphysical way of thinking about the self. Kerr has taught me this: Although I may not be able to overcome my philosophical commitments, I can be attentive to these commitments and thus avoid becoming a slave to their tyrannies.

Wednesday, October 11, 1995
Fr. Jerome M. Dittberner
DT 603

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