Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Wittgensteinian metaphysics

I bet that header will get me a lot of google hits.

So, well, yeah, I am reading Radical Orthodoxy - a New Theology. The first two essay's I like. Millbank is doing his "I know how secularism came about" thing, and manages not to be very obnoxious... In the second essayJohn Montag traces the reason/revelation division back to Suárez, thus creating another theology bad guy. This is very good stuff.

But the third essay is much weaker. Here Conor Cunningham tries to show a few things. First that the "two Wittgensteins" are in fact rather close to each other, which is probably not very surprising. More importantly, Cunningham tries to show that Wittgenstein in spite of claims to the contrary, in fact builds his philosophy on (you guessed it) secular metaphysics. I do not find this convincing at all.

It is one thing to state that Wittgenstein in some sense stands in the tradition of Kant. This I can accept: there are clear parallels between Kant's critique of reason and Wittgenstein's "critique" of language. But when Cunningham tries to show that the (mostly later) Wittgenstein's ideas about language is a kind of undercover metaphysics the arguing becomes almost embarrassing.

Let me state first that I am no expert on Wittgenstein. The fact is I have read very little by him. But I do work in a very Wittgensteinian environment. Philosophy at my University is very much Wittgenstein so one tends to pick up a lot of Wittgensteinian influences by osmosis. (We actually have something of a tradition. Finland's greates philosopher, Georg Henrik von Wright, who succeeded Wittgentein as professor of Philosophy at Camebridge came here for the later part of his carreer. Besides being a close friend of Wittgentein he also oversaw the publication of most of the posthumous writings). Anyway, I do have some sense of what is usually considered to be themost central points in Wittgenstein's philosophy.

Cunnigham basically suggests that because Wittgenstein says that "language games" are given, this is to say that they have some kind of metaphysical status, analogous to Kant's categories. This seems to me to be to willfully misunderstand W's point. Cunnigham seems to think that Wittgenstein means that language game and the grammar of language games "exist" prior to the actually situation where they are put to use. This would indeed be some kind of covert metaphysics.

But what W means when he says that language games are given is rather that they are not constructed, that they are not "made up" and that they therefore could be in need of some kind of improvement by philosophers. They are the way they are. But it is absurd to read this as a kind of metaphysics. A language game does not exist prior to the life-form it functions in. When a new life-form arises (I guess by and by) a new language game arises with it. There is nothing mysterious about this. Language games are not like Kant's categories, they do not shape our use of language, the notion of language games just helps us describe how language functions.

I read this essay as a symptom of some kind of theological paranoia. A more generous approach would be to grant that Wittgenstein's philosophy accepts that various sorts of language, including Christian language does not have to measure up to some universal standard (reason, secular or otherwise), but functions according to its own logic. Isn't this pretty close to what RO is about?


Malcolm XYZ said...

hi there,

your blog looks tremendously interesting, but i am going to do it an injustice by saying that i am just dropping by to say that i have started a patristics discussion group on yahoo groups. you probably have enough to read and discuss already, but this could be something worth checking out. see url below, pax, TG

Sam Norton said...

Hi Patrik - delighted that you're back blogging again. 100% agreement with you on this - it was this specific paper, and my disagreement with it, that led to my disillusionment and then abandonment of a PhD (Graham Ward was my supervisor). The RO crowd a) simply don't 'get' Wittgenstein - at all! - and b) they think that Conor actually does, and that his analysis is sound. Barking mad, despite some of the other good things about RO.

Patrik said...


that's extremely interesting... It is always good to get confirmation on my opinion...

Have you written about this experience with the "RO crowd" somewhere? I'd be really interested to hear more about that.

Sam Norton said...

Hi Patrik - there's various stuff on my blog. The most substantial is a paper you once linked to (here) which gives the academic side of my disagreements with them. There's a more general paper (here) which talks about Cunningham more explicitly, and is a little less academic overall. Very happy to pursue the conversation!

Sam Norton said...

BTW I met John Montag when I was at Cambridge and remember a really interesting discussion about Suarez - I think that part of the project is spot on.