Posted by: Dan | September 29, 2006

God Beyond Language?

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that there are significant limitations as to what language can actually say. Language, Wittgenstein argues, is only meaningful when it is used descriptively, as a model of reality. Any attempt to say anything beyond such things is nonsensical (i.e. lacking in meaning, having no sense). Consequently most of philosophy and theology is revealed as just that sort of nonsensical language. What we say when we speak theologically cannot be described as true or false, it simply lacks meaning altogether.

Naturally, this seems to strike the Christian reader as a disturbing conclusion. Surely we want to be able to say something meaningful about God, or about ethics, or about metaphysics, or whatever. However, just as we must wrestle with Wittgenstein's argument, and his conclusion (part of which is: “whereof one cannot speak, about that one must remain silent”), we must not also be too hasty to suggest that Wittgenstein intends his argument to be an assault on Christianity or on faith. Wittgenstein actually has no desire to limit human imagination, yearning, feeling, or thinking, he is simply suggesting that there are limits on the meaningful expression of thought.

In this way, it could be argued (indeed, it is argued by Alfred Nordmann in his introduction to the Tractatus) that Wittgenstein is following the trajectory of critical philosophy established by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Kant argues against the ability to gain certain knowledge about God because knowledge is always knowledge of objects or appearances. Thus, to attempt to gain knowledge about God would transform God into just another object. Consequently, Kant draws the limits of knowledge so narrowly that God is beyond them. Kant concludes: “I had to deny knowledge to make room for faith.”

Wittgenstein does not deny knowledge of God per se, but he does deny that any such knowledge could be expressed meaningfully. Nordmann aptly summarizes Wittgenstein's position when he writes: “Those who believe that they can talk just as sensibly about absolute or ethical value as they can about cars an cookies are actually conflating them.” The problem, according to Wittgenstein, with taking an absolute (whether that be an Absolute Being, or an absolute Value) and making it “just a fact like other facts” is that everything absolute is then drained from that Being or Value, because all facts are necessarily contingent. Therefore, Wittgenstein denies meaningful expressions of the absolute, not in order to deny faith, but in order to make room for faith. Therefore, by drawing a line which language cannot cross, Wittgenstein situates God beyond language, and allows God to exists as God.

Of course, the notion of situating God beyond human speech should cause the reader to think of another major influence on 20th century thought — Karl Barth. Writing at the same time as Wittgenstein, Barth described God as God who is “distinguished from men and from everything human, and [who] must never be identified with anything we name, or experience, or conceive, or worship, as God.” God, he went on to say, “is that which lies upon the other side.” Consequently, when God is encountered, he is always encountered in his hiddenness, breaking forth like “a flash of lightening, impossibility and invisibility.”

Of course, there are some significant differences between Barth and Wittgenstein but it is interesting to begin by exploring where they overlap. Indeed, the differences only gain their proper significance once we understand the similarities (actually, it's pretty interesting to note the biographical similarities of these two men, but I'll save that for another time).



  1. Hi,
    I just stumbled upon this article while thinking (and googling) about Barth and Wittgenstein. I would like to write something about “On Certainty” and christian faith, but my theological perspective is slowly shifting towards Barths approach and that leaves my small brain in weird intelectual pain. There are so many similarities between Barth and Wittgesntein. But is there a way how one can maintain Barths (strict) theological approach (for which theology is really theo-logy and not investigation of “subordinate pressupositions” – i.e. grammar”) and still be enriched by Wittgesnteins work? If you would be so kind, I would appreciate someone to discuss this with.

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