Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135
Culture and Value is a devastating critique of the nature and character of modern civilization. This is not an original work, however, for all the remarks published by Wittgenstein’s literary executors are actually adumbrations and elucidations of the views developed systematically in his two main works, Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations. Hence, any analysis of the remarks collected in Culture and Value must necessarily entail a brief account of the positions which originally gave rise to them.
The basis for Wittgenstein’s critique of science is developed most clearly in the Tractatus. There he argues that science cannot provide a proper view of reality because the foundation of its view, natural law, does not really explain anything at all. Law, Wittgenstein points out, is based on necessity, and necessity, in turn, is exclusive to logic, not experience. Causality, the heart of so-called natural law, is a good case in point. It is an inductive generalization derived from experience. Since nothing is absolutely certain in experience, however, one thing does not of necessity follow from another as it does in logic, where one deduces conclusions from fixed premises. In experience, he reminds the reader, “there is no compulsion making one thing happen because another has happened. The only necessity that exists is logical necessity.” Accordingly, “the exploration of logic means the exploration of everything that is subject to law. And outside of logic everything is accidental.” Wittgenstein understands “natural law,” then, as a special kind of descriptive device rather than as an intrinsic feature of reality itself. “The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.” All natural science does is create a uniform description of the world, and this description, in turn, constitutes the so-called order of the world. Thus, for Wittgenstein, “philosophy sets limits to the much disputed sphere of natural science.”
Yet exposing the limits of the scientific view was not Wittgenstein’s only concern in the Tractatus. In this work he also explores the basis for attaining ultimate meaning. Meaning, he argues, is only a problem as long as one approaches it incorrectly as a scientifically amenable issue. Once one recognizes that it has nothing to do with ascertaining, describing, and manipulating facts—that is, creating a world to one’s liking, in which one ostensibly fulfills oneself—one realizes that one has to take a completely new approach to life and the world, from the outside as it were, sub specie aeterni, mystically. Approached this way, there is no problem. The world, now perceived as the miracle of sheer existence itself, is revealed as intrinsically meaningful; thus, the problem of meaning simply vanishes. In other words, as an answer, the new approach eliminates the question. In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein observes, “The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.” His illuminating simile is that of a man who will remain “imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.”
Wittgenstein’s experience of meaning is also definitely akin to a religious experience. Indeed, many of the remarks in Culture and Value have to do with religion. In fact, out of a total of 512 remarks more than one-fifth focus on questions of belief and faith. Wittgenstein is as profoundly moved by his experience of meaning as is any believer who has truly seen the light and opened his heart to the Divine. Yet Wittgenstein’s “God” is not identical to the traditional one. He did not actually believe in God as a Person or in the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, he had little sympathy for the dogmas and doctrines of the various churches; indeed, he was very critical of most of them, the Pauline doctrine of predestination in particular. For Wittgenstein, what really counts in Christianity is not its specific teachings but rather its demand that one undergo a fundamental change in outlook and commit oneself to a completely new way of living. A specific doctrine, he says, “need not take hold of you; you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription,” that is, without knowing what it really does to you. For true spiritual well-being, he insists, “you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction. . . . Once you have been turned round, you must stay turned round.” Only an experience that is deeply and genuinely moving can effect such a profound change. Interestingly, Wittgenstein considered the feeling of being lost and alienated from one’s fellowman, which many scholars see as endemic to life in a modern scientifically based society, as the “ultimate torment.”
Yet in the light of this special understanding of Christianity, the question arises whether Wittgenstein can still be considered genuinely religious. Clearly, he changed his own approach and got outside the world (the realm of facts and “natural law”), but this does not mean that he also got outside reality as such. The traditional Christian believer, in contrast, truly escapes the world. He is delivered from it into the arms of God, Who constitutes a distinct, separate, ultimate reality in His own right. What Wittgenstein experienced outside the world was not a separate ultimate reality but rather the existence of the world itself. Existence per se is divine for him. From the standpoint of the Christian tradition, this viewpoint is definitely philosophical rather than religious. What counts, however, is the character of the experience itself, not its content. For Wittgenstein, sub specie aeterni was so radically different an approach that it saved him; it issued in a salvation experience rather than a philosophical one. Despite the traditional Christian assessment, then, his faith is not philosophy but rather religion.
The best proof that Wittgenstein had a genuine religious experience is shown by the subsequent transformation of his life. After exposing the limits of science and finding a way to resolve the question of meaning, Wittgenstein gave away a considerable inherited fortune, renounced the sophisticated cultural life of Vienna and Cambridge, and attempted to devote himself completely to the service of his fellowman. This meant teaching primary school in remote Austrian villages and working as a gardener for a monastery in a suburb of Vienna. It is clear, then, that Wittgenstein’s religious experience of existence issued in a genuine transformation of the entire person. It manifested itself in a whole new approach and way of living rather than a mere change of attitude and set of prescriptions for acting. In the overall history of Western thought, Wittgenstein, despite his stunning achievements as a philosopher, definitely belongs on the side of the believers.