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‘Objectively there is no truth’ –

Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard on Religious Belief
Genia Schönbaumsfeld

Kierkegaard’s influence on Wittgenstein’s conception of religious belief was huge, but
this hasn’t so far been given the attention it deserves. Although Wittgenstein wrote
comparatively little on the subject, while the whole of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre has a
religious theme, both philosophers have become notorious for refusing to construe
religious belief in either of the two traditional ways: as a ‘propositional attitude’ on the
one hand or as a mere ‘emotional response’ with no reference to the ‘real world’ on the
other. This refusal to play by the orthodox dichotomies, as it were, has led to gross
misrepresentation of their thought by numerous commentators. Neither Wittgenstein nor
Kierkegaard has been immune to allegations of both ‘relativism’ and ‘fideism’,
although neither charge could be wider of the mark. It is not that Wittgenstein and
Kierkegaard reject the role that reason has to play in both religion and philosophy, but
that they try to undermine from within certain common assumptions about the nature of
both religious faith and the point of philosophical activity that make us believe that the
traditional dichotomies exhaust all the available options.
What I hope to show in this paper is that more sense can be made of Wittgenstein’s
controversial remarks on religion, if we juxtapose them with Kierkegaard’s religious
thought, especially that of Kierkegaard’s pseudonym1, Johannes Climacus, in
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The focal point of this paper is going to be the
attempt to read what little Wittgenstein has to say about this topic through the lens of
Climacus’ claim that “objectively there is no truth; an objective knowledge about the
truth or the truths of Christianity is precisely untruth”. I will begin by giving a brief
exposition of Climacus’ views, will then sketch out what Wittgenstein has to say on the
matter and will then attempt to bring the two together. In the remainder of the paper I
will assess the implications of Wittgenstein’s and Kierkegaard’s conception as well as
address some of the problems that their account might be said to engender.


because the interest. and the belief in the Last Judgement. Therefore. If I want to keep myself in faith. For religious belief. we have to concentrate instead on the ‘existential’ or ‘personal’ significance that this question has for us. Of course the very concept of ‘belief’ would then become obsolete too. He says. I must continually see to it that I hold fast to the objective uncertainty.” (CUP. just like the decision is subjectivity. is something much more fundamental than simply being of the opinion that God exists. This is what Climacus means by ‘subjectivity’ . vanishing something. it follows that in order to resolve the question of faith I must be infinitely interested in it as an existing person. not as a lofty scholar. precisely because religious belief does not. What he means by this is that because for him. the truth becomes indifferent. on this conception. I do not have faith. “The way of objective reflection turns the subjective individual into something accidental and thereby turns existence into an indifferent.193) In other words. The way to objective truth goes away from the subject.000 fathoms of water and still have faith. see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am out on 70. before my ‘very eyes’. “Without risk. on this conception. consist of assenting to propositions. historical or otherwise. ‘empirical’ issue which can be resolved by appeal to evidence. p. and while the subject and subjectivity become indifferent. as for Wittgenstein. Climacus puts it like this. then on Climacus’ and Wittgenstein’s view. If I am able to apprehend God objectively. would not be fundamentally different from the secular belief that one will be put into prison for certain crimes. as.I Concluding Unscientific Postscript Climacus notoriously claims in the Postscript2 that in religious matters ‘truth is subjectivity’. as it were. even if evidence could be had.” (CUP.204) What Climacus means 2 . Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty. and that is precisely its objective validity. p. for example. on this view. I must have faith. That is.and this has nothing to do with relativism or ‘irrationalism’. no pertaining to the ‘subject’ . in a world where ‘God’ could ‘empirically manifest’ himself. it would no longer be religious belief. our concept of a ‘God’ to be believed in would lose its point. it makes no sense at all to say that I believe in something that is. but because I cannot do this. as commentators often suppose. the question of faith is not an ‘objective’.

Christianity is not a philosophical theory and the apostles were not a little professional society of scholars. the question does not even come up4. but to the intellectual and existential risk you take when you stop pondering a question ‘objectively’ and rather want to resolve it by making a decision.All paganism consists in this. What Climacus is consequently referring to is the risk of commitment . p. Consequently. then. that God is related directly to a human being.” (CUP.224) 3 . says Climacus. therefore. Hence someone. The ‘70. however. on this view. taking God to be amenable to some kind of empirical investigation or thinking that some sort of ‘direct’ relationship with Him is possible. Where something can be resolved objectively.and that is always a risk. “Objectively there is no truth. it has to arise by ‘objective uncertainty’ isn’t empirical uncertainty. becomes conceptually impossible and passion becomes madness. for from the objective point of view. the question of whether to have faith in Christ (the Incarnation. ie by changing the way you live in the relevant way. an objective knowledge about the truth or the truths of Christianity is precisely untruth. they are either deluded or hypocrites. that perched in a tree on the embankment and perhaps even whistled in an unprecedented manner . According to Climacus.. is really nothing more than paganism. then. that is. if it is the latter that people take Christianity to be. for example. but rather the kind of uncertainty that accrues to making certain ‘existential’ choices. as the remarkably striking to the amazed.then our partygoing man would surely have had his eyes opened. As he puts it. “If God had taken the form. of a rare. for Climacus. because Christianity is inwardness. enormously large green bird with a red beak.000 fathoms of water’ are not referring to the extreme degree of ‘empirical uncertainty’.”(CUP. p. be it in the religious domain or in other walks of life where you cannot remain dispassionate and disinterested (what Climacus means by ‘objectivity’). On Climacus’ conception. who clings to something finite that could be settled objectively with the passion appropriate only to faith is on the brink of insanity (which is just what happens in the case of religious fanatics or religious fundamentalists3).. To know a creed by rote is paganism. As Climacus says. faith. what Climacus calls the ‘absolute paradox’) can only arise for someone who wants to be a Christian.245) Therefore.

adhered to firmly with the passion of the infinite. I think. The reason why Climacus is emphasising the finitude of human beings is. it is something that one has to keep on doing. and it is comparatively most difficult for the person who has much understanding. Thus.” (CUP. or the on-going struggle. misguided. as if to a metaphysical theory. existing being to apprehend truth sub specie aeterni (which is just what the Hegelians against which Kierkegaard was reacting denied). viewed essentially. in order to express this and to prevent anyone. as it were.On Climacus’ view. sustained in the face of the temptations to objectivity with which one’s finitude presents one. “Suppose that Christianity does not at all want to be understood. which cannot be expressed more definitely than this: it is the absurd5. and this is why the figure of Christ represents a continuing challenge even from the perspective of the Christian way of living. because Climacus believes that it is impossible for any finite.214) The emphasis on ‘existence’ is crucial here. is continually to reaffirm oneself. Suppose that it wants to be only for existing persons and essentially for persons existing in inwardness. it has proclaimed itself to be the paradox. but qualitatively and essentially difficult for every human being. because it is an awareness of finitude that tends to draw people out of and away from themselves. p. He says. it is equally difficult for every human being to relinquish his understanding and his thinking and to concentrate his soul on the absurd. in the search of an objective point of view – of the God’s eye view. The challenge. is the worst possible misunderstanding. from taking the road of objectivity. Christians are just as finite as anybody else. if one recalls 4 . and it is in that process that the authentically Christian relation to the understanding (and indeed to the relation between faith and the understanding) can be recognised. getting away from seeing the Incarnation as an intellectual or philosophical problem is not something that one can do once and for all. Climacus therefore says of his book: “My intention is to make it difficult to become a Christian. therefore. in the inwardness of faith. yet not more difficult than it is. as someone with the relevant unconditional commitments. because. suppose that. Therefore Christians too exhibit this tendency. trying to relate to Christianity ‘objectively’. and not difficult for the obtuse and easy for the brainy. Rather. as a Christian.

Experiences. non-Christian perspective. e. p. The understanding. However. nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Given that the Incarnation is incomprehensible from the objective.557) The difficulty that Climacus is referring to here is a direct consequence of his claim that Christianity is an absolute commitment to subjectivity or inwardness. but I don’t mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us ‘the existence of this being’. there are only two possible responses to it: offence or faith. if the understanding continues to cleave to pondering this question objectively.g.”(CUP.that not everyone who has not lost his understanding over Christianity thereby demonstrates that he has it.292). is repelled by the very idea of having to let go of ‘objectivity’. we need to look at what he says about ‘objects’ in On Certainty8. but. Climacus is suggesting. becoming a Christian involves a ‘crucifixion of the understanding’: if we take the paradigm of ‘understanding’ to be the ‘objective stance’ . 5 . “Life can educate one to a belief in God. Thus the difficulty of becoming a Christian consists of the ever-present struggle against the temptation to view the claims of Christianity objectively – a struggle so intense that Climacus calls it a ‘martyrdom’.a paradigm that Climacus shared with the Hegelians .then anything ‘non-objective’ will naturally be something ‘over which the understanding despairs’(CUP. if the understanding realises that the only correct response to the paradox is ‘subjective appropriation’. In this much. and it is in virtue of this that. These neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object. then the result will be faith6. However. it is exactly this that.” (Last italics mine) In order to understand what Wittgenstein could have had in mind when making the latter claim. II Culture and Value and On Certainty In Culture and Value7 Wittgenstein makes the following remark. p. in the end. Climacus thinks. then the only possible response to it is offence. thoughts – life can force this concept on us. sufferings of various sorts. then.. So perhaps it is similar to the concept of ‘object’. the understanding is loathe to do. And experiences too are what bring this about.

Therefore it makes sense to say ‘there are frogs’ or ‘there are no unicorns’. it would have to be possible to know or to explain what would have to be the case if there were no physical objects. Wittgenstein says. nor is it employed in the same way as the concept of a particular object. then we would have to be able to indicate what would count as evidence for it. Is it supposed to be an empirical proposition? – And is this an empirical proposition: ‘There seem to be physical objects’?” (On Certainty. is no more than a grammatical proposition that tells us what kind of thing a hand is. for the concept of ‘physical object’ is not a theoretical one. But what would such evidence look like? Moore held the view that it is possible to infer ‘there are physical objects’ from the proposition ‘here is a hand’. All of this indicates that the proposition ‘there are physical objects’ is not an empirical one. Should the proposition make sense. according to Wittgenstein. Furthermore. what as evidence against it. 6 . but not to say ‘there are physical objects’. and.Contrary to Moore. according to him. §35) In order for the proposition ‘there are physical objects’ to make sense. but this was an illusion. as the opposite of these sentences also makes sense. who insisted on the truth of this proposition against the sceptic. as. but do not actually do so (the classical sceptical scenario). But it is just this that is impossible. For the latter means no more than that a hand is a physical object. it is not an empirical proposition for which one could have evidence. then it would have to be a kind of hypothesis. for we cannot explain what would be different if there were no physical objects. Wittgenstein thinks that the proposition ‘there are physical objects’ is a piece of philosophical nonsense. this. we also cannot explain what is the case when physical objects do exist. If this were an ontological hypothesis. consequently. how the question could be settled beyond any reasonable doubt. it is even less possible to give criteria for what would have to be the case if physical objects only seemed to exist. No sense-perception or impression of an object (such as a hand) can lead us to the conclusion that there are physical objects. for which one could have evidence. And yet ‘there are physical objects’ is nonsense. and far from being an ontological hypothesis. “But can’t it be imagined that there should be no physical objects? I don’t know.

as nothing in the empirical world can provide ‘evidence’ for a ‘framework proposition’ – for something that stands fast. which is absurd. Consequently. That is to say. “To demonstrate the existence of someone who exists is the most shameless assault. as it were. since it is an attempt to make him ludicrous. but rather functions as a rule which tells us what it makes sense to say in a given form of life. The same.” The point of the analogy therefore is to show that it is nonsensical to demand proofs or evidence for something that does not play the role of a hypothesis or a theory. but the trouble is that one does not even suspect this. then? No. I think. and is not an ontological assertion or denial. applies to sentences such as ‘red is a colour’ and ‘God is omnipotent’. As Wittgenstein says.(i) The Point of the Analogy What Wittgenstein is trying to suggest. the proposition ‘a table is an object’ seems to be an empirical one. because one demonstrates his presence by the expression of submissiveness…And thus 7 . Therefore it is impossible to have evidence for the existence of any of these things. but isn’t. For this would be like saying that the moves in a game are evidence for its rules. The latter statement tells one how to use the word ‘God’ just as the sentence ‘there is no highest number’ informs one about the grammar of number words. is that they are grammatically similar in the sense that the propositions ‘there are objects’ or ‘there is a God’ are nonsense when they are taken to be empirical propositions or ontological hypotheses instead of being construed as grammatical remarks that. “Essence is expressed by grammar. In Climacus’ words. (Theology as grammar). one makes a fool of him. constitute the ‘bedrock’ of the relevant forms of life. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard therefore agree that it is a mistake to want to demonstrate God’s existence. Wittgenstein is suggesting. What if one in his most majestic presence wanted to demonstrate that he exists? Does one demonstrate it. and not a hypothesis about the nature of the thing called ‘table’. that in dead seriousness one regards it as a godly undertaking…A king’s existence or presence ordinarily has its own expression of subjection and submissiveness. the proposition ‘a table is an object’ is a grammatical one that tells me how to use the concept ‘table’: it is the expression of a norm or rule. when he makes the analogy between the concepts ‘object’ and ‘God’.

why can we not talk of inferring the existence of God in the way we might infer the existence of black holes. God is not directly perceivable. if there is also ‘logical space’ for being wrong and here there is none.”(§155) Two objections to this conception suggest themselves at this point. for in such cases doubt is logically excluded. such as. Naturally. we would not regard someone who was not religious as demented and secondly. say? 8 . for example. otherwise Moore would have been justified in deriving ‘objects exist’ from any empirical proposition. nor that the laptop I’m currently writing on does. neither prove that I exist.” (CUP. a also demonstrates the existence of God by worship – not by demonstrations. Of course my actually writing on the laptop presupposes that it exists. distant planets etc. is not evidence for the existence of that person. pp. then given that on Climacus’ view. nor that someone else does. there are cases where it does make sense to speak of evidence for the existence of something – for example of galaxies. Hence talk of evidence is only meaningful.545-546) Proving the existence of anything that I am immediately aware of is impossible9. This is precisely the reason why Wittgenstein argues that ‘there are physical objects’ is not a hypothesis. we should not just not share his opinion: we should regard him as demented. say. Similarly. where it is a matter of being directly confronted by something. As Wittgenstein says in On Certainty. if it makes sense to speak of having evidence for non-directly-perceivable things. just as hearing someone cry out in pain. but this certainly is no proof. Firstly. Senseimpressions of objects are not evidence for their existence – I do not infer the existence of an object from the sense-impression10. However. religious experiences are not evidence for the existence of God. I can. “If Moore were to pronounce the opposite of those propositions which he declares certain. it makes no sense to speak of having evidence.

In faith. For grammatical remarks are neither true nor false. in the religious case. too. Rather. this does not show that the ‘proposition’ ‘God exists’ isn’t grammatical in respect to the religious form of life. What Wittgenstein is therefore saying when he says we would regard someone as demented who affirmed the opposite of what Moore said is that if someone said this and actually meant it – ie wasn’t just. Where doubt is logically excluded. 9 . say. but this isn’t fatal to Wittgenstein’s account. we are confronted with ‘pluralism’ in the sense that there is not just one way of looking at human life. as they assert nothing (no state of affairs). It is saying only that ‘God exists’ is a condition of sense for this form of life and consequently that it cannot be ‘up for grabs’ – it is not an empirical proposition to be investigated. For of course Wittgenstein holds in On Certainty that declaring either Moore’s propositions or their converse certain is misconceived. Naturally. would not.(ii) Objections to the analogy – the first objection While someone who pronounced the opposite of those propositions that Moore declares certain would be regarded as demented. they function as conditions of sense (rules) without which the form of life they are grammatical to would become unintelligible or lose its point. doubt is logically excluded (Climacus says that faith and doubt are opposite passions). consequently faith cannot be a species of knowledge. Wittgenstein thinks that it makes no sense to claim to have knowledge. Moore is speaking nonsense according to Wittgenstein when he says things like ‘I know that I have a hand’ or ‘I know that objects exist’. Therefore. then neither the proposition nor its converse can be affirmed or denied. Therefore it is perfectly possible to deny the religious view of the world without becoming unintelligible. If it is the case that ‘there are physical objects’ is grammatical and not empirical. However. however. someone who declared the opposite of what the religious person affirms. This is indeed so. engaging in a philosophical dispute about realism – then this person would become unintelligible to us. ie we could no longer understand him or make any sense of him. as grammatical remarks do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore saying that ‘God exists’ is grammatical for a religious form of life is really not saying very much.

All Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard are saying is that the ‘reality of God’ is not on a par with the ‘reality of empirical objects’ and that consequently. the measuringrod against which everything else is measured. Does this deny ‘the reality of God’ – something that ‘orthodox’ Christians are often worried about? Not at all. Second. But this is just as impossible as in the ‘there are physical objects’ case. as it were. I believe it is mainly this point that the analogy between talk of objects and talk of God is supposed to illustrate. in the case of religious belief it is also not a matter of making inferences from certain sense- 10 . but are rather the ‘grammatical foundations’11 of the form of life in question. For they comprise. at least in principle. count as confirmation or disconfirmation of it. if it made sense to ask for evidence for God’s existence. that in the religious case ‘evidence’ does not play the role it usually does when we are dealing with evidence for the existence of empirical objects.i) The role of evidence What Wittgenstein is trying to bring out by way of the analogy is that. This is why they can neither be true nor false. (ii. it is only if we desire the ‘reality of God’ to be akin to that of (super-)empirical objects (something that both Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard would call conceptually confused) that their account could legitimately be accused of ‘anti-realism’. Therefore. First. it makes no sense to approach God ‘objectively’ – as if relating to an empirical concept or to a metaphysical theory. (iii) Objections to the analogy – the second objection There are two possible responses to the second objection.Faith is the ultimate ground (the bedrock) of the religious form of life and ultimate grounds admit of no further justification. just as we cannot infer the proposition ‘there are objects’ from the proposition ‘here is a hand’. then the proposition ‘God exists’ would have to be a hypothesis for which we would have to be able to specify what would.

Would seeing Christ rise from his grave constitute such evidence? But if we are not religious. per impossibile. There simply is nothing that we would ordinarily call an ‘evidential basis’ here. This is also the reason why no one. black holes or what have you) stand to the proposition ‘the earth is round’ (as Wittgenstein says. if one thinks that ‘there is a God’ is similar to ‘there is a Loch Ness monster’). or if there were a Loch Ness monster. offense or faith. shows. that language is idling when we try to construe religious belief analogously to empirical beliefs. Of course the world of the religious person is in some sense a different world to that of the atheist. This is. bothers to mount a search for God (which would really be the sensible thing to do. As Anti-Climacus12. the author of Practice in Christianity13 puts it.97) (ii. for if you do not believe him (Christ) to be who he says he is.perceptions. For nothing would change in the world if God existed – at least nothing that would be cashable out in propositions. or how it would be if God existed. nothing would count as ‘evidence for the existence of God’ for us. we did not learn the concept ‘God’ by being shown pictures of him. “The miracle can demonstrate nothing. The miracle can make aware – now you are in the tension. even funny. satellite pictures of the earth (or of Loch Ness monsters. That this idea seems ludicrous. some bizarre and hitherto unexplained phenomenon? The main reason why I think that Wittgenstein would want to insist that ‘God exists’ is grammatical is that. nor ‘could’ we be shown pictures of him and the nature of this ‘could’ is logical). then you deny the miracle. I think. have any.”(p.ii) ‘God exists’ as a hypothesis It is possible to describe what would be different. say. even in principle. if we are not religious already. and it depends upon what you choose. For religious experiences do not stand to the proposition ‘there is a God’ as. I think. but not how it would be if there were a God. even if we could.432). the significance of Wittgenstein’s remark in the Tractatus that “God does not manifest himself in the world” (6. would we be seeing Christ as opposed to. if there were unicorns. or what would have to be the case. it is your heart that must be disclosed. just as Wittgenstein said in the 11 . For we could always explain even the most outlandish events simply as strange natural phenomena. say.

And to say this is to determine the concept ‘God’ more precisely. were the grammatical remark to be true.Tractatus that the world of the happy person is a different world to that of the unhappy. Because all that really means is: I cannot explain what ‘colour’ is. “God’s essence is supposed to guarantee his existence . of course. p. But this is ultimately not qualitatively different from encountering. say.but not: ‘what it would be like if there were such a thing as God’. Poseidon and talk of an ordinary human being. So in this case there is no such thing as explaining ‘what it would be like if colours were to exist’. In Christianity (and other monotheistic religions) talk of God is not like that. except with the help of a colour sample. The grammar of the word ‘God’ does not function analogously to talk of some empirical object. what the word ‘colour’ means.what this really means is that what is at issue here is not the existence of something. One could perhaps therefore say that during the transition from paganism to Christianity the word ‘God’ underwent a grammatical shift and changed from being some kind of super-empirical concept to a grammatical one.82e) The reason why it is possible to describe what it would be like if there were Gods on Mount Olympus is because in pagan religions the deities are on a par with other empirical objects. Wittgenstein says. But this ‘difference’ does not show up on a ‘propositional’ level – the empirical world remains the same and yet the atheist would say other things about it than the religious person. say. And now we might say: There can be a description of what it would be like if there were gods on Olympus . except that Poseidon has super-human powers. just vastly more powerful. say. however. When something becomes a grammatical remark. Couldn’t one actually say equally well that the essence of colour guarantees its existence? As opposed. to white elephants. a new species from a distant planet who have powers surpassing our own. as any state of affairs in the world is taken by the religious person to be compatible with God’s existence (and the converse is probably true of the atheist). 12 .” (Culture and Value. it is ex hypothesi impossible to describe what the world would have to be like. There is therefore no grammatical difference between talk of.

I mean: it is not based on grounds. be in the least arbitrary. While it seems fairly clear.” (§559) Faith cannot be objectively justified (for if it could. so very different from other language-games or forms of life. In this respect use of the word ‘object’ can no more be justified than use of the word ‘God’. how life forces the concept of ‘object’ on us. It is there – like our life. into this horror… Considered in any other way Christianity is and must be a kind of madness or the greatest horror. as faith is not the result of philosophical deliberation or the consequence of weighing up empirical evidence. it is far from clear how this happens in the case of God. if I dare to put it that way…. very Lutheranly: only the consciousness of sin can force one. for as Wittgenstein says in On Certainty. one might wonder how one can come to have faith at all.” (p. and yet the employment of these terms need not. if you wish that grammatical remarks function as conditions of sense and cannot therefore themselves be either true or false. what Wittgenstein is saying in On Certainty is that none of the concepts that lie at the heart of our forms of life14 can be so justified. but ultimately. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard would agree. in this respect the religious form of life is not. but in the foregoing quotation 13 . Given that Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard have both repudiated all ‘objective’ approaches to religion. “You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. However. III Implications of Wittgenstein’s and Kierkegaard’s Conception Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard agree that religious belief is non-rational: it is neither reasonable nor unreasonable. however. in the end.67) Now Wittgenstein doesn’t speak of ‘consciousness of sin’. how in the world can anyone think of accepting Christianity?’ Very simply and. it would eo ipso not be faith). It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). for all that. In Practice in Christianity Anti-Climacus perhaps gives a rather surprising answer to this question which Climacus had left hanging in the Postscript: “‘But if the essentially Christian is something so terrifying and appalling. As Wittgenstein keeps reiterating: life forces these concepts on us15.

many commentators have taken the foregoing to imply that Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard are equally guilty of reducing religion to simply living life in a certain kind of way. This is ultimately the significance of Climacus’ remark that as regards Christianity ‘objectively there is no truth’. Just as there is no ‘recipe’ for how to live. It is only within the life of a religious person. as Anti-Climacus keeps emphasising. there is no ‘recipe’ for how to have faith. can do no justice to what religious people actually believe. at least in part.from Culture and Value he says that life can educate one to a belief in God and he cites. How one therefore comes to have faith must. One simply has to find these concepts appropriate in despite of any problems they may cause. where this stark either/or is simply inappropriate. then. However. ‘sufferings of various sorts’. that religious concepts become properly meaningful. they think. Being religious means living life according to the Christian teachings and examining one’s life according to the Christian categories. ethics and aesthetics also being cases in point. Firstly. there are many ‘domains of discourse’. I will briefly address two criticisms that are frequently made of both Wittgenstein’s and Kierkegaard’s conception of religious belief. remain a ‘subjective’ matter. in the end. What Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard seem to be saying here is that the shape of one’s life and the experiences one has can teach one a use for certain religious concepts. IV Conclusion By way of concluding. a result of being mesmerized by two exhaustive seeming dichotomies: either religious beliefs can be cashed out propositionally (realism) or they reduce merely to taking up a certain kind of attitude (anti-realism). as it were. Secondly. commentators often think that this conception seals off religious belief from any kind of meaningful criticism and is therefore pernicious. these concepts cannot but strike one as part and parcel of some obsolete metaphysical doctrine. for example. This is why all of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms keep stressing the existential (ie ‘subjective) dimension of faith. I believe both of these criticisms to be erroneous and. 14 . Taken out of context. which.

That is to say. the Redeemer17. There is no such thing as believing something in vacuo – without a context – unless one thinks that believing is tantamount to holding a certain mental image before one’s mind16. Consequently. Wittgenstein says. and that therefore strictly speaking what we consider impossible is only improbable. not to have said anything apart from. reciting a formula by rote. That is why Wittgenstein. but by the Holy Ghost. stating that Christians believe. As Wittgenstein puts it. on all accounts of him. What they are denying. holds that idealism or global scepticism is really a non-starter. is. is talking in a certain way without this making any practical difference at all. however. Genuine beliefs can never be divorced from the consequences they have in one’s life. “I read: “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord. in the end. for example. for example. It is not only consciousness of sin that is necessary. nevertheless could not become a genuinely religious person. as Climacus would undoubtedly say. In this respect it is interesting to note that Wittgenstein. “For there are people who say that it is merely extremely probable that water over a fire will boil and not freeze. who. So. for all it reduces to. it is not the case that Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard deny that religious people believe different things to non-religious people – far from it. is that any sense can be made of those beliefs completely independently of the form of life which gives them sense. in the forgiveness of sins.” – And it is 15 . was obsessed by his ‘sins’. It appears to be the latter that Wittgenstein could not bring himself to accept.I think that one of the main motivating factors behind Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is to show that there is no such thing as ‘simply living life in a certain kind of way’ as opposed to ‘believing certain things’. contrary to Kierkegaard. but also the belief that one’s sins will ultimately be forgiven by Jesus Christ. it seems that Anti-Climacus’ claim that only ‘consciousness of sin’ can force one into Christianity leaves something rather fundamental out. as yet. What difference does this make in their lives? Isn’t it just that they talk rather more about certain things than the rest of us do?”(On Certainty §338) Beliefs and the language-games (or forms of life) which are their home cannot be divorced from each other.

Because I do not believe that he will come to judge me.true: I cannot call him Lord. illustrates very well that Wittgenstein does not hold that religious people don’t believe different things to non-religious people. I think. be such things) would never exert motivation enough for a life-change as drastic as that required by Christianity.”(Culture and Value. for example. he is not advocating some form of ‘anti-realism’ about religion. And it could say something to me. If Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard are right. to call religious claims false in the sense that a claim in an empirical science. then there simply is no conceptual space for ‘counterfactuals’: so much as proposing them is already tantamount to a complete rejection of the religious framework – that is. However. that consequently religious claims are ‘sealed off’ from criticism. and religion is simply not a matter of making (metaphysical or empirical) conjectures.33e) This quotation. ethics does (which is not to say that religion can be reduced to ethics) and therefore it would also have to be criticised along similar lines18 – after all it is Anti-Climacus himself. according to Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard. as ‘formal’ proofs or ‘evidence’ (if there could. This is not to say. For religion. Consequently. therefore. not the mind of the speculative philosopher. I can understand it when he is called thus. Kierkegaard’s ‘highest’ (ie most Christian) pseudonym. he does agree with Kierkegaard that the Christian teaching addresses primarily the individual’s life and the way the individual thinks about and assesses his life. this has implications for the kind of criticism that it would be pertinent to make of religion. for instance. because that says nothing to me. It 16 . Naturally. unless one is wedded to a form of logical positivist claim about language. might be called false. ‘God’ even – or rather. it would make no sense. because that says nothing to me. who calls Christianity ‘a kind of madness’. Therefore. However. though. Given that Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard eschew any kind of theoretical or propositional interpretation of religious concepts. only if I lived completely differently. on their view. p. this does not imply that religious claims can’t be criticised. per impossibile. makes claims about human life in the way that. it is tantamount to a loss of faith. but I cannot utter the word ‘Lord’ with meaning. I could call him the ‘paragon’. all Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms insist that faith is a passion and not some form of theoretical commitment.

by Timothy Tessin and Mario von der Ruhr. He neither has faith (according to his own avowals he is not a Christian). Blackwell 1996. (See Conant. I cannot address the problem of how to read Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms here. It definitely feels that it cannot ignore Christ…But neither can it believe. but neither is he properly offended. ed. 48-60. that James Conant. p. Wittgenstein and Nonsense” in Ted Cohen. 6 Climacus himself seems to be occupying a mid-way position as an author.225. Macmillan 1995) James Conant holds that Climacus’ distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ problems comes down. CH Beck. it continues to stare fixedly and exclusively at one point. p. 17 . Kierkegaard. for example. see Annemarie Pieper. That is why both philosophers would agree that the way of ‘objectivity’ leads only into darkness. in a certain sense. Princeton University Press 1992. at the paradox…A person so offended lives on as a shadow. 3 This shows.merely means that the sort of criticism that pertains to all kinds of theoretical endeavours will not be apposite here. Pursuits of Reason. Princeton University Press 1980) Given that in a journal entry Kierkegaard places himself ‘higher’ than Climacus. 2 Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. 4 In “Putting Two and Two Together: Kierkegaard. edited and translated by Howard and Edna Hong. although this ‘awareness’ is not on a par with being aware of a physical object. “Kierkegaard. in the end. Climacus: “The next form of offense is negative but in the form of being acted upon. Wittgenstein and the Point of View for Their Work as Authors” (in Philosophy and the Grammar of Religious Belief. Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy. Texas Tech University Press 1993. 5 By ‘absurd’ Climacus means something resistant to ‘objectification’ (and consequently ‘mediation’). p. reduces Christianity to paganism. Notes 1 Given space constraints. pp. what for Climacus would amount to the same. ‘immediately aware’ of the ‘reality of God’. we must be licensing ‘grisly forms of fanaticism’. it seems as if we need to mark out that which reason can comprehend from that which it cannot. Blackwell 1969.280).” (p. Paul Guyer and Hilary Putnam (eds). For a related point. to presupposing “the existence of a category of problem that reason cannot penetrate. 10 See Peter Hacker. is wrong to think that if we take Climacus’ ‘substantive claims’ seriously. although.214. 8 edited by GEM Anscombe and GH von Wright. agnosticism of course reduces to a form of offence. but ‘lower’ than Anti-Climacus. Munich 2000. A ‘subjective’ point of view or approach is not the ‘logically alien’ counterpart to ‘objective thought’. 7 edited by Georg Henrik von Wright. Blackwell 1980. one might wonder whether this description doesn’t ultimately fit Kierkegaard himself (see the supplement to Practice in Christianity. in the end. or.292) This is a misunderstanding fuelled by pressing the analogy with a ‘new’ Wittgensteinian reading of the Tractatus too hard.131 of the Hong edition. incidentally.” (p. 9 The religious person can be said to be. In The Sickness Unto Death Anti-Climacus says the following about his alter ego. his life is devastated because deep within himself he is constantly preoccupied with this decision. of suffering.

naturally Wittgenstein. would also agree. What he means by that is that Wittgenstein rejects the major premise of ‘classical’ foundationalism – the idea that “foundational items must belong to the same category as the items which rest upon them” (p. If this means only that physical objects can be perceived. – But does it certainly agree with reality. then I think that Wittgenstein would object. although I am not entirely sure what that is really supposed to mean. For as he has argued. If it means that one cannot in all seriousness doubt that there are physical objects. neither belief is a hypothesis and even if it were one. Princeton University Press 1991. if everything speaks for an hypothesis and nothing against it – is it then certainly true? One may designate it as such. 13 edited and translated by Howard and Edna Hong. 18 I cannot here address the question of the similarities and differences of religion and ethics. while one can doubt whether there is a God. however. Moore and Wittgenstein On Certainty (Oxford University Press 1994) Avrum Stroll speaks of the ‘non-homogeneity’ of ‘foundational items’ – ultimate grounds. then. “Well. then Wittgenstein would agree (as would any religious person) that in the case of physical objects one is more ‘forced’. takes this to imply that therefore the former is more ‘true’ and more ‘certain’ than the latter.141). I take it. but is used in the sense of ‘ante’ – ‘before’ or in this case ‘above’. with the facts? – With this question you are already going round in a circle. xiii. See the introduction to Practice in Christianity. 12 ‘Anti-Climacus’ does not mean against Climacus.” (OC §191) 16 I cannot go into the reasons why Wittgenstein takes this to be a misguided conception of belief here. but for reasons that I cannot go into here. there would not be any absolute justification for it. If one. 17 This is an issue that Anti-Climacus discusses in The Sickness Unto Death. p. but God cannot and direct perceivability is the criterion of ‘forcedness’. 14 I am avoiding the term ‘framework proposition’ on purpose. 15 Now in the case of physical objects one might think that one is more ‘forced’ than in the religious case.11 In his excellent book. 18 . As he puts it.