Wittgenstein: Metaphor and Metaphysics

Roughly at the beginning of the 20th century a new type of philosophy began to develop, a type that was to distinguish 20th century thinking from all previous types of philosophical thought. This type is usually called "Analytic,” sometimes also "Linguistic” philosophy. Among its most prominent founders were Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and among its most noted characteristics is the idea that philosophers do not talk about the world directly anymore, but only about statements about the world. The immediate subject matter of "Analytic" or "Linguistic" philosophy is not reality, but language.

The explicit exploration of the facts of the world is deliberately left to disciplines that specialize in the collection of empirical data, such as the natural and social sciences. Philosophy, by contrast, confines itself to the painstaking clarification of concepts, and it does so through the logical and semantic analysis of the language by means of which we communicate about facts and the world. Traditional philosophers would ask such things as “Is the life of the mind superior to the physical life?” Analytic philosophers by contrast ask: “What exactly does ‘life of the mind’ mean? And what does ‘superior’ indicate—a fact or some emotional or social valuation?” Traditional philosophers, according to their Analytic colleagues, were far too careless in their pronouncements and generalizations, and a whole new procedure or method was called for if philosophy was to make any significant contributions to human knowledge in the future.

This is not to say that recent philosophers have simply become linguists or lexicographers. Analytic philosophers still try to shed light on such perennial philosophical problems as the nature of the mind, the basis of morality, the ultimate purpose of art, and so forth. But they do so by paying attention to the details of language in a way that earlier philosophers would have found excessive. Analytic philosophers are convinced that no valid insights about the world can be gained without scrutinizing the way language mediates and shapes our perception and understanding—or misunderstanding!--of the world.

Of particular importance to early Analytic philosophers was the critique and eventual demolition of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of the ultimate nature of reality, and traditionally it has embraced highly speculative theories of the supernatural, theories that are usually as riddled with imprecision as they are lofty. In an age that was largely shaped by the success of the exact and evidence-based sciences, philosophers as well as the reading public at large had become wary of the precariously formulated assertions of metaphysicians, and they had increasingly begun to ask for reliable proof and other forms of substantiation. Analytic philosophers radicalized this skepticism by arguing that metaphysical statements are not just murky, unproven, or outright untrue, but altogether vacuous and literally void of sense.

Wittgenstein in particular maintained that metaphysical statements have no cognitive content whatever—that, indeed, they are composed of meaningless terms in much the same way in which Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” is composed of “words” without sense. In the interest of cleaning up a discourse that was riddled with hazy notions and conceptual confusions, Wittgenstein recommended that the murky and pretentious propositions of metaphysics be replaced by a clear-headed silence. At the end of his trailblazing Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he wrote:

The right method in philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. ,the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had not given a meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would not be satisfying to the other --he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method. ... Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (1)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was born and grew up in Vienna, but received the professional part of his education in England, where he first studied engineering, and then mathematics and Analytic philosophy. Bertrand Russell, his teacher and friend, soon came to think of Wittgenstein as a philosophical genius who effected more than one break-through in the theory of logic and philosophical analysis. During World War I, while fighting in the Austrian army, Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus, a slim volume which became one of the classics of 20th century philosophy. It inspired the group of rebellious philosophers that came to be known as the "Vienna Circle," and it provided the main basis for Logical Positivism, the school of thought that was most vociferously engaged in the elimination of metaphysics from professional philosophy.

After the war, Wittgenstein (a millionaire by inheritance) gave away all his money, abandoned philosophy, considered becoming a monk, spent two years designing and building a radically modernistic house for his sister, and finally decided to make a living as a grade school teacher in the Austrian country side. It was not until the end of the 1920s that he could be persuaded to return to the University of Cambridge and to academic philosophy. He spent the rest of his life teaching and critiquing his own earlier work, significantly radicalizing his deconstruction of metaphysics and traditional philosophy. Although he became ever more dissatisfied with academia as a way of life and inquiry, his influence was enormous among young philosophers and other intellectuals. His Philosophical Investigations, posthumously published in 1953, can easily be classified as one of the most incisive and important works of 20th century thought.

The bulk of Wittgenstein’s work, like that of most early Analytic philosophers, deals with logic, language, concept formation, and questions that are today discussed under the heading of cognitive science. The critique of religion and religious language was a by-product of these endeavors. Still, Wittgenstein’s radical critique of metaphysics has significant implications for the understanding of religious language, and it is these implications that will be considered in what follows.

The heart of traditional critiques of religion had always been the contention that religious beliefs are a sort of illusion, and that the central statements of any creed are either wildly speculative or downright false. While theologians spent much time on such projects as proving the existence of God, and while atheists did their best to show how incompatible religious claims are with the evident truths of common sense and science, both sides always took it for granted that basically religious statements are either true or false.

The Analytic critique of religion differs from its traditional predecessors in that it does not say that religious assertions are unproven or false, but that they are impossible to understand. And they are impossible to understand not because they are difficult or too complex, but because they literally have no sense. Religious statements are neither true nor false, according to this Analytic critique, but literally non-sense. Strictly speaking they are not statements at all, but just so many noises or marks that signify nothing.

To illustrate: The statement "Pigs eat corn" is true. The statement "Pigs fly by flapping their ears" is false. The statement "Pigs gorban toves" is neither true nor false, but nonsense. According to the above Analytic philosophers, key statements of religion are essentially like "Pigs gorban toves"--sentence-like utterances without any sense. Nobody can either believe or disbelieve "Pigs gorban toves" or utterances like it. Because before one can either believe or not believe a statement, one has to understand what it says--and that, according to Analytic philosophers, is an impossibility in the case of metaphysical propositions.

Statements can be nonsensical in a number of ways. "Pigs gorban toves" is nonsensical on the face of it. So, presumably, is Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky": "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe ..." Other statements are nonsensical as well, but at first sight they look as if they had some meaning. "My feelings weigh 1.74 pounds" may be an example, and "The inflation rate is without water” another. At first sight certain religious statements look like regular statements as well. Propositions like "The dead warrior is passing on to another world," or "God sees everything" certainly do not look as nonsensical as "Pigs gorban toves." Yet they are, according to the above Analytic philosophers. Their lack of meaning, however, has to be shown by a certain amount of careful analysis.

"Pigs gorban toves" is unintelligible because two of its "words" have no meaning. That is one way in which a sentence can fail to have sense. It is often argued that that is the case with one of the key statements of many religions, namely "God exists." This statement is said to be nonsensical because one of its words cannot be satisfactorily defined--the word "God." God is often defined as a non-physical person who is omniscient, omnipotent, and universally good. The words in this definition sound alright, but can one really think such a being? Is being physical in some way not indispensable for being a person? Can one conceive of a scolding, wrathful, loving, or talking being who does not have a human-like body or other appropriate physical attributes? And can one conceive of someone as omnipotent and universally good if he permits all the atrocities and immense pain that have been perpetrated on children and other innocent creatures throughout history? What do such words mean? Obviously we can mouth words like “non-physical person” or “universally good,” but can we really think what we seem to be saying? Are such words not expressions that sound familiar and solid, but that fail to convey any thinkable content?

The Analytic challenge is that the word “God” is not sufficiently defined to have meaning, and that statements containing it fail to make sense. To say "God exists" is like saying "Purlik exists." Nobody can say whether that is true or false, because nobody knows what it says. Nobody can thus either believe or refuse to believe such a statement. If "God exists" is nonsense, however, then the key statement of atheism is nonsense as well--"God does not exist." Even the agnostic "I do not know whether God exists" does not make sense. Neither theists nor atheists nor agnostics know what they are talking about; their "statements" are all senseless sounds.

It will not be necessary here to get into the discussion of whether "God" can be satisfactorily defined or not. The case is worth mentioning as a schematic illustration of the way in which the Analytic critique of religion is different from traditional critiques, and how Analytic philosophers talk about statements, instead of talking about God and the world. To further indicate, however, the peculiar approach of Analytic philosophy, the following controversy is worth mentioning.

There has in recent years been a discussion among theologians about whether God is male or female (a discussion that is similar to the one about whether God is "black,” "white," or “red”). Many feminist theologians find the description of God as "father" as offensive as earlier thinkers found the description of God as an authoritarian "lord" (which seemed to validate the discredited feudal world of monarchs and serfs). In certain circles the determination of God's gender has therefore become a matter of political and emotional importance. The question at the center of this controversy is, whether the traditional or the feminist description of God is true.

Analytic philosophers would have trouble entering the fray on either side. An Analytic philosopher's first question would not be whether the assertion "God is male" is true or false, but whether it can be understood. How can God have a gender? Since presumably it is not a matter of physical details such as a beard or voice, is it a matter of social role or emotional disposition? Are there things that a male or female God would not do because of his or her gender? What exactly would make God male or female? How would we know God’s gender if we encountered the deity?

The question of God’s gender is bound to leave philosophers at a loss—not because it is difficult to answer, but because we do not know what an answer would be like. It is like the question whether Lake Huron is male or female: it is no real question at all. It is a senseless utterance in the form of a question—"language on a holiday,” as Wittgenstein sometimes called this sort of talk.

To further exemplify the problems of meaning that arise in connection with religious statements it will be helpful to take a closer look at a seemingly unproblematic statement like "God sees everything." The statement seems clear and easy to understand; it could be uttered in church or in ordinary conversations. Yet, upon closer inspection it reveals all the difficulties that Analytic philosophers have had with metaphysical statements. The difficulties in question are, in fact, such that they inspired a whole theory of meaning concerning religious statements, a theory meant to solve these philosophical difficulties.

It is obvious why a sentence like "God sees everything" might be puzzling to someone who gives thought to its meaning. Seeing is something that involves persons, i. e., beings with functioning eyeballs, suitable viewing positions, and other physical details that cannot very well be connected with God--God as a non-physical being. How can a non-physical being see? What would “seeing” be in such a case? To see without a body seems as impossible as sneezing or having cramps without a body, or as impossible as smiling without a face or a mouth. The word "see" does not seem to mean anything in connection with non-physical beings, as little as such words as "sneeze”, "smile”, or "shudder.” To say that someone sees and is non-physical appears to imply an outright contradiction.

A way out of this difficulty seems to be the idea that religious propositions are not straightforward statements, but rather "metaphors," "similes," “allegories,” or “symbols.” Sentences like "God sees everything," according to this theory of meaning, cannot be understood literally, but only as symbolic pictures of something that can only be conveyed indirectly. God's "seeing" would then somehow be like the seeing that human beings perform, but also different in that it is not physical. The question is: Does this solve the problem of the intelligibility of religious statements? Does it help us to understand how a non-physical being can see--or be watchful, wrathful, loving, and so forth? Does it help us to see how a non-physical being can be black or male?
In his "Lecture on Ethics" of 1929 Wittgenstein offers the following critique of the idea that religious statements are similes or metaphors:

For when we speak of God and that He sees everything, and when we kneel and pray to Him, all our terms and actions seem to be part of a great and elaborate allegory which represents Him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win, etc, etc. ...Thus in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be a simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first seemed to be a simile now seems to be mere nonsense. (2)

The gist of Wittgenstein's criticism is his reminder that a simile has to be a simile for something. Consider the following case: It is possible to describe the automated security system of a building as if it were a superhuman person. One could say of it that "it is behaving very oddly tonight," or, on account of its electronic eyes, that "it sees everybody entering and leaving the building." One can also say that it "admits" or "refuses entrance" to visitors, depending on whether the latter insert the proper cards into the appropriate slots. The regulating computer of the system can be said to be "startled" when fed with unforeseen data. It is clear that in this and similar cases anthropomorphic expressions like "seeing," "behaving," or "being startled” are not used in a literal sense, but rather metaphorically. A building's security system does not really see, get startled, etc., but rather functions in a way which in certain respects is analogous to what human beings do when they see, refuse entrance, get confused, and so forth. Thus, such expressions as "seeing" can be considered similes when they are used outside the sphere of those human activities in connection with which they are developed and normally learned and applied.

What is important here for Wittgenstein's contention is the fact that the metaphorical expressions can be replaced by literal descriptions of what is actually happening in the above security system. Instead of saying that the system "sees" people entering or leaving one can describe the functioning of photosensitive cells, impulses transmitted through wires to the regulating computer, and similar mechanical operations. One can, in other words, describe the functioning of the security system by using either metaphorical or non-metaphorical terms, and whenever there are questions about the intelligibility of the metaphor, one can have recourse to the non-metaphorical description. It is the possibility of such recourse to non-metaphorical language which Wittgenstein finds lacking in the case of religious language. Thus, while it is clear that God does not see in the way human beings do, it is not at all clear what God does do when he "sees."

In his Tractatus Wittgenstein writes: "To understand a statement is to know what is the case if it is true." (3). But we do not know what is the case when someone says that "God sees." It follows that we cannot understand a text which says that "God sees everything." It also follows that we do not understand whatever else is said about God's activities, dispositions, and plans, as all these anthropomorphic reports fail to be translatable into direct, non-metaphorical descriptions of the alleged metaphysical facts. We simply do not know what seeing without eyes could possibly be, or feeling without a body, or planning for a future without an appropriate social and physical context. In trying to think such things as God seeing we may momentarily call up all sorts of pictures (like Michelangelo’s picture of God looking down at Adam ), but none of the pictures will show what needs to be shown. A non-physical being cannot float, speak out in anger, or touch human beings with his hand. Try as we may, we have no idea as to what that would be like. In the end a sentence like "God sees everything" can do nothing but baffle us--provided we pay attention to the supposed meaning of the statements that people seem to bandy about so carelessly.

Images are important in religion; people’s feelings, resolutions, and commitments are often prompted by and intertwined with vivid imagination, powerful visions, or overwhelming dreams. The whole idea of "another world," of a spiritual realm "beyond" the physical world, is largely sustained as a series of pictures—by what seems to be an elaborate metaphor. Certain burial rites, present in human civilizations for thousands of years, are instructive. In many cultures chieftains and warriors were buried with all their weapons, together with food, drink, and sometimes slaves that would help the deceased to survive during their journey to and in the Other World. Vikings fitted a boat in which a dead warrior was sent on his way. Such burial customs indicate that both the journey and the Other World were imagined on the model of traveling and surviving in this world. Life after death was pictured as something that strongly resembles life before death. All the elements of the imagined life in the Other World are images of life as we know it here and now. This is why as early a philosopher as Xenophanes (born around 570 BCE) cautioned us about our readiness to construe divine matters on anthropomorphic models--to glibly create gods in the image of men:

Mortals, however, believe that the gods are born and wear clothes and have voices and a build like themselves.
If oxen and horses and lions had hands and could paint and produce works as human beings do, horses would paint the forms of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and they all would create them in the image of their own kinds.
The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.

Seemingly metaphoric images and anthropomorphic models are systematically misleading when it comes to metaphysics. They invoke a world that they could not possibly represent. The world in which we live and learn language is physical in many ways, a world of the eyes in particular, while the Other World is said to be a non-physical realm. That Other World is even said to exist "beyond space and time." This means that there is no possible boat that could make the passage from our world to the other, and no equipment that would help a dead person to survive. Even the Vikings must have been aware that a boat and a corpse could not land in the Other World in the way boats and passengers might land on the shores of other continents. One can call up the image of a passage, but the image means nothing once one tries to think of it as a depiction of a metaphysical state of affairs. The image can be called a metaphor for metaphysical events only as long as one does not acknowledge the details that would be involved in a passage to another world, details that involve space, time, and physical conditions. Images and anthropomorphic imagination, in other words, can maintain their suggestive power only in the absence of careful reading and critical attention. In the end they are just images, not images of something metaphysical.

Once critical questions are asked, the entire conception of “another world”--of a metaphysical transcendence--is bound to fall apart. Not, again, because there is no corroborating evidence of its existence, but because one cannot even imagine what it would be. People who talk about “life after death” regularly invoke images of three-dimensional spaces and times in which such a life, rather like on earth, can take place. But given that the “other world” is non-physical and “beyond space and time,” none of their attempted descriptions makes sense. As long as one thinks of the Other World as something like another country or region, or some sort of place that involves physical features, there is something one can call up in one’s imagination. But as soon as one is serious about the meta-physical nature of the “beyond,” all thought and imagination will cease. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Since the unthinkable cannot be thought, there is nothing to confirm or deny with respect to “another world;” there literally is nothing to argue about. The problem with which theologians and their atheist opponents have wrestled so hard and for so long, the question whether there is a God and a metaphysical transcendence, has thus not been answered or solved, but dissolved--dissolved by exposing the very notion of a metaphysical transcendence as a logical impossibility, as something that nobody can think. There is no conceptual foothold for trying to prove or disprove the existence of married bachelors or non-physical persons, nor is there one for wondering about metaphysical transcendence. Once this is clear, a great deal of chatter will stop, and a clear-headed silence prevail.


(From Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies)


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