Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Wittgenstein Admired Mormons

On the evening of August 5, 1949, an ill Ludwig Wittgenstein took a walk with his friend and fellow philosopher Oets Bouwsma. 

Wittgenstein had agreed to Bouwsma's invitation to lecture at Cornell University, and he had arrived in the United States only a month previously. As a part of their exchange, Wittgenstein brought up an interesting topic, one that Bouwsma felt important enough to remember years later.

Bouwsma remembers their conversation in the following excerpt:

"As we approached the car, he asked me whether I had ever had any acquaintance with the Mormons. They fascinated him. They are a fine illustration of what faith will do. Something in the heart takes hold. And yet to understand them! To understand a certain obtuseness is required. One must be obtuse to understand. He likened it to needing big shoes to cross a bridge with cracks in it. One mustn't ask questions."

As both a Wittgenstein fan and a faithful Latter-day Saint, this isolated remark strikes to the core of my intellect and emotion. But this doesn't happen in a negative way. I have grown to trust Wittgenstein's judgments more than those of any other philosopher, and the fact that he respects my faith gives me comfort where other things might not. 

However, you might think Wittgenstein's statement near the end of the excerpt odd. If Wittgenstein does respect Mormons, why does he say that a thinker needs to be "obtuse" to understand them? This seems to present a problem, but I am familiar enough with his writings to see that his underlying themes present themselves here. For Wittgenstein has never thought it a shameful thing to stop asking questions. 

For instance, consider this:

"For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. [...]

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.5, 6.52, 6.521)

Or this:

"The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question." (The Big Typescript)

Or even this:

"The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn." (On Certainty 341)

Again and again, Wittgenstein depicts the truly wise person as one who has control over their question-asking. If (according to the early Wittgenstein) you try to think or say what cannot be said, or if (according to the later Wittgenstein, who is really saying the same thing) you use your language games beyond their intended scope, you will restlessly seek for meaning where there is none to be found. Words in our language such as "be" or "true", or phrases such as "the extent of space" or "the passage of time" will bewitch our human sensibilities until we see the universe as hopelessly incompatible with human meaning and values.

Wittgenstein says that you can solve this problem by making making your questions disappear, for only if you stop trying to solve the "riddle of the universe" will you actually understand the answer to it. This takes faith. You must be confident that meaning will arise even if you don't seek it, that the inexpressible will indeed show itself. For the faithful person doesn't ascend to Heaven by their own efforts; he waits for Heaven to descend upon him. And this is why Wittgenstein admired Mormons.

When Wittgenstein talked about the requisite obtuseness to understand Mormonism, all he meant was this ability to cease our questioning by faith. The Mormons who endured persecution at the hands of mobs, the Mormons who crossed the plains in handcarts, or the Mormons who endured centuries of ridicule by popular culture; they don't waste time asking unanswerable questions. This noble people has faith that the universe is ultimately meaningful, and this faith bears observable fruits.They don't doubt; they live

We don't believe in a big abstraction at the heart of reality, whether you call it "the laws of nature", or soften it by giving it the name of an impersonal God. We instead agree with Wittgenstein when he said that "the world and life are one", (Tractatus 5.621) for we assert that the universe is not cold and absurd, but intimate and personal. Furthermore, the doctrine that God is a man allows us to declare together with Wittgenstein that the limits of the world are human, for they were, in a sense, made by a human God. Indeed, we also agree with Wittgenstein when he says that:

"As long as you imagine the soul as a thing, a body in the head, this hypothesis is not at all dangerous. It is not the crudity and incompleteness of our models that brings danger, but their vagueness." (The Big Typescript)

After all, what comes more naturally to Mormons than the idea of an anthropomorphic soul? And what is more hostile to the ethereal vagueness of certain popular models of the self?

The greatest philosopher of the twentieth century not only admired Mormons, but preached a philosophy that resonates with the essentials of the Mormon faith. He taught that we should not reach beyond the confines of our humanity, declaring that such intellectual hubris would only cause us pain. In similitude to Mormon beliefs, he also taught that the only world we could ever know was one of humanity, for the only way he thought we could encounter the world is through the human phenomenon of language. In short, both Wittgenstein and the Mormon faith declare the world to be compatible with human longings and ideals. If it is the case that we feel existential anxiety when looking at the world, they say it is likely because we misperceive its inherent humanity

For if we cease our striving for answers on earth, they will come to us from heaven. If, whether by exhaustion or by choice, the question disappears, the answer will immediately appear. This is faith, that virtue which Wittgenstein found so overflowing in the Mormon people. And what better expresses that virtue than the most famous Wittgenstein saying of all?:

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 7)


  1. Fascination is distinct from respect. You're analysis of Wittgenstein's assessment is a prime example of the obtuseness referenced by the philosopher. His philosophy is not harmonious with Mormon theology, as implied by Peter Hacker to me directly after he spoke at BYU (in a lecture series on scientism) almost two years ago. But forget Hacker. Read the PI again.

  2. I didn't come up with the idea that Wittgenstein respected Mormons. I borrowed the notion from the book "Wittgenstein in Exile", by James Klegge. If I am obtuse, it is because of him and not because of my Mormon beliefs.

    1. Sorry, that was too mean spirited. The post got my ire up. I've just read Klagge (I was familiar with Bouwsma's quotes from Wittgenstein on Mormonism previously). I read Wittgenstein's fascination with Mormonism as more of an anthropological one and less an argument for the theology from within the Mormon "way of life" itself; however, I suppose in the spirit of the anthropological approach, since it seems you are a believer, if for you his comments are part of the "big shoes", very well.

  3. This may also be of interest.

    From Conversations with Wittgenstein by M O'C Drury in Ludwig Wittgenstein: personal recollections edited by Rush Rhees, 1981 - pages 119-120:

    wrt to Charles Dickens's book An Uncommercial Traveller - Wittgenstein:

    "This is a very rare thing - good journalism. The chapter 'Bound for the Great Salt Lake' was particularly interesting. Dickens had gone on board the emigrant ship prepared to condemn, but the happiness and good order he found on board made him change his mind. This shewed what a real common religious movement could achieve. It was striking that when Dickens tried to draw them out as to what exactly it was they held in common, they became embarrassed and tried to avid answering."