Apophatic Transformation of The Philosophical to the Theological in the Thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein
Instead of diving directly into the subject of this writing forthright, there must first be an interrogative addressed. Before I attempt to make a philosophical point about any matter using the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, I find it of great significance to define what the task of philosophy is to Wittgenstein, and how this impacts the function of all I mean to say. Wittgenstein sees philosophy’s task as being simply to clarify a logical body of thoughts. Wittgenstein’s work serves not as a systematic body of conclusions or scaffolding for which to construct upon, but rather as a measuring or shaping device, with which to compare, shave, or mold a systematic body of knowledge. While the world was concerned with manufacturing structures and bodies of knowledge at the end of the long 19th and early 20th century, Wittgenstein was concerned with the tools that produced them. The most important of these tools being language. Wittgenstein wanted to clarify what it was that language was doing, what language could be inappropriately forced to do, and how the philosophical mind could untangle the whole of language so it could be set to the proper task of clarification. All this now brings me to the specific nature of my topic. Below, I am going to set out how Apophatic theologians could potentially adapt the tools created by Wittgenstein to be more intentional and productive with their language on God’s (non) being and its meaning for the Christian language game.
From here, an illustration of Apophatic theology is required to understand the full nature of my topic. The Pseudo-Dionysius illustrates this negative methodology as they explain:
When pursuing the negative method, to reach that which is beyond all negation, we must start by applying our negations to those qualities which differ most from the goal. Surely it is truer to affirm that God is life and goodness than that He is air or stone, and truer to deny that drunkenness or fury can be attributed to Him than to deny that we may apply to Him the categories of human thought.
This method of deducing nature by distinguishing what things are not proves extremely useful when attempting to avoid logical fallacies within a given language game, while also allowing for a more accurate perception of the phenomena that may or potentially may appear. Apophatic theology’s greatest blessing is the methodological refusal to put logical constraints on a God that cannot truly be defined or given shape by human construction. Apophatic theology allows for the phenomena of God to manifest, and simultaneously to rest and seek refuge from constant attempts at applying inflexible definitions to God’s existence.
With this understanding in mind, Wittgenstein’s thought can be assimilated into the language game of Apophatic theology to aid the theologian in a proper distinction between God’s (non) being and the world. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein composes the picture theory of meaning to readily make distinguishable reality and nonsense, or objects and nonobjects. Two examples of what is meant by this could be found in this form:
- Suppose that I asked you to picture a black shoe on a red mat. You would create an image in your mind of possibly an Italian black shoe laying down on a flimsy red mat. Then I say to you, “Open your eyes and look.” And there before you lay a shoe on a red mat. Perhaps this shoe has some variations of its features that are distinct from the shoe in your head, and perhaps the mat is sturdier in appearance than in your mind, but the objects that you imagined are in fact confirmed by the appearance and logical positioning in space and time that you have encountered. There before you, a black shoe does exist alongside a red mat.
- This is a fine example but suppose now I asked you to picture God languishing away in heaven on the soul of the next child who is to be born tomorrow. Suddenly, your mind has struck a sand bar of sorts, you are no longer able to picture or compare any of that information with the facts of the world. You do not know what God or heaven looks like, and you surely do not have an idea of the logical space those two could occupy. I cannot ask you to open your eyes and compare your mental picture to the world. It is not a fact of the world.
So, how should the theologian respond to a claim that at face value appears to be dismissive of the very existence of God? Apophatic theology possesses a potential answer when it reminds us that we come to a truer comprehension of God by determining what God is not, and as Wittgenstein’s thought beautifully illustrates, God is not an object of comprehension belonging to the world. God is not contained within the limited definition of the world’s objects. When the theologian constrains God to object status, they throw away any meaningful distinction between the world and the Holy that God could possess. Too often, to vainly seek knowledge and control of God, many reduce God to an object, which of course leads to a deification of the constructed object, which then in turn begets a form of self-imposed idolatry. Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning then serves as a tool to keep the Christian from distorting the notion of our transcendent and distinct God into a depiction of an object that is bound by the constraints of the object language game. Wittgenstein allows the theologian to save the actual use and meaning of the language of God from the idolatry and misunderstanding contained within the language game of things. Jean Luc Marion poses this idea in the form of a set of questions, “Does God reveal himself to make himself known and to take a place within our rationality? Or does he instead reveal himself to allow himself to be loved, and to love us?” If the Christian relegates God to object status or to a place within rationality, they lose the very nature of God and the Christian language game in the process.
From here, Wittgenstein then proceeds to progress from this notion of meaning in the Tractatus, to a new conception of meaning that is primarily concerned with the meaning and usage of language as it functions within a given language game. With this new approach, Wittgenstein again provides Apophatic theology a tool that can clarify theology internally, as well as distinguish theology’s place among the other external language games within the interconnected web of language.
First, I will take up the external clarification. In his lectures on religious belief, Wittgenstein states, “Suppose, for instance, we knew people who foresaw the future; make forecasts for years and years ahead; and they described some sort of Judgement Day. Queerly enough, even if there were such a thing, and even if it were more convincing than I have described but, belief in this happening wouldn’t be at all a religious belief.” This would not be a religious belief, as Wittgenstein goes on to clarify, because it would be based on a sort of claim of empiricism, some sort of verifiable knowledge that then makes the language function outside of the moral claim that theology’s function for the words “Judgement Day” possesses. So, the obvious trick here then is that the moment two or more games collide and attempt to play by each other’s epistemological rule sets, then the games become incompatible, language goes on holiday, and as Wittgenstein put it, “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”
The most glaringly obvious form of this epistemological rule error often manifests itself in the debates between science and theology. A very common occurrence in Christian apologetics is to take a position on the existence of God and inform this position with a set of empirical claims, such as the makeup of celestial bodies, interplay of astrophysics, mathematical/probability claims, etc. The practitioner of this form of apologetic theology fails to recognize that the very epistemological claims they produce only apply to objects, thus when attempting to show the existence of God, they reduce God to an object among many objects. As contended above, this line of thinking dismisses the very intent and utility of the theological language game. In trying to develop the face of their position, they destroy any philosophical validity to their own language game. The only option left for the theologian is a sort of Apophatic claim that relies on the language used within the context of the Christian game, one that refuses the empirical epistemological rule set of other games. In short it relies on revelation, not empirical data, and in doing so does not attempt to have authority over other empirical games’ truth values.
With this considered, internal clarification follows the external clarification. Once users have realized the game’s own epistemological rule set, then the game itself develops a clearer expectation, meaning, and performance, of language. If the theology language game shifts outside of using language as it is used and meant within its own game, then it would destroy any basis for proof or dissent within itself and the variation of the game it just attempted to create. Through awareness of Wittgenstein’s concept, the Christian can keep the rule set of their beliefs separate from the rule sets of objects and facts, thus creating a more internally cohesive and meaningful language game for both the nonempirical and empirical variations of games that make up the human life world.
In finality, Wittgenstein’s philosophical output has done more than simply challenge hundreds of years of preconceived notions, or worse, stopped philosophy in its tracks with another Gordian knot. Rather, Wittgenstein has handed all the intellectual fields a toolset with which to cut and shape their future trajectory into something of meaning and sense. As Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus,“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In an Apophatic (and even Quietest) sense, Wittgenstein here draws a line and passes the torch from the philosophical to the mystical/theological in order that we abandon the epistemological rule set of propositions, objects, and facts, so that we may encounter the aesthetic rule set of wonder and faith which is, after all, what grants our choice of faith any actual meaning. This very choice is what yields the transformation from the art and attitude of philosophy to the art and attitude of theology.
Marion, Jean Luc, Givenness and Revelation. Translated by Stephen E Lewis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Pseudo-Dionysius, and C. E. Rolt, Dionysius the Areopagite: On the Divine Names and Mystical Theology. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge; New York, The Macmillan company, 1920.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees, and Cyril Barrett. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1972.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 2009.
About the Author
E. Byrd Deyton is a philosophical theologian pursuing his Master of Divinity at the Boston University School of Theology. Born and raised in East Tennessee, Eli has spent many years in the rural South, looking to the resolve and faith displayed by the people of the Appalachian foothills in times of hardship as an inspiration for writing practically informed academic works, as well as creative poetry and prose. He spends his time reading 20th Century philosophy, exploring New England with his brilliant and lovely fiancé, Carlee, and appreciating musical greats such as Derek Trucks, Jerry Garcia, and John Coltrane.