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The Facts of the World Are Not the End of the Matter: On Wittgenstein's Religion

"I couldn’t work much, but work with assurance." —Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s hut (restored) in Skjolden, Norway. All photos courtesy Jon Bolstad and © Wittgenstein Initiative.

Wittgenstein is often seen as coldly analytical. In fact, his greatest and most famous ideas were religious—mystical even.

Wittgenstein used weirdly long dashes as a kind of typographical form of prayer, according to the scholar Martin Pilch (2016). He would put two em dashes in a row, sometimes even three. ——. Like this.

When Wittgenstein was stationed in Kraków in the winter of 1914-15, he found it difficult to work. His thoughts were “tired” (müde). “It is as if a flame has been extinguished and I must wait till it begins to burn again of its own accord.“

Wittgenstein was searching for the redeeming word (das erlösende Wort), an idea or concept that would unlock the truth and revivify his stalled mind.

On September 1 in 1914, Wittgenstein’s regiment made a short stop in the small town of Tarnów in Poland. He wandered into a bookshop and encountered Tolstoy‘s 1892 book Gospel in Brief. He will claim that this book saved his life.

“You can’t hear God speak to someone else, you can hear him only if you are being addressed.“

—Wittgenstein

Marjorie Perloff (2022) argues that through the war Wittgenstein comes to the realization that there is no redeeming word; no answers, only questions. Perloff may be right, though I'm not convinced this is the correct conclusion.

Perhaps there is no redeeming word, no particular keystone concept that could suddenly unlock everything, but this is not to say there is no redeeming Word or Logos. It is not quite correct to say that there are no answers and only questions.

The incessant drive towards clarity and correctness, constantly confronting the surprising and obscure contours of reality, is the answer to the question of life. In seeking the right words, we seek the Word, and those who seek the Word are in fact redeemed—strangely and often inexplicably, yet consistently and reliably. It is not clear why or how, but over time it seems clear that this happens—empirically.

By analyzing his notebooks, Perloff can even show that Wittgenstein's most famous analytical claim has roots in one of his earlier religious observations. In the most widely cited line of the Tractatus, he says, "Of what one cannot speak, of that one must be silent." But during the war, he first scribbled in his notebook, "To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter." And then on the opposite page: "But the connection will have been made! What cannot be said, cannot be said!"

Wittgenstein's life demonstrates the spiritual and practical implications of authentic and disciplined truth-seeking. Despite the war, depression, deviant sexuality, self-hatred, poor social skills, and zero capacity for playing institutional games, he made real discoveries, earned real respect, won real disciples, and achieved a lasting impact on how people think.

"Again and again, I have to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly been deprived of his vocation! How terrible! What philosophical outlook would it take to overcome such a thing? Can it even happen except through suicide!!—  I couldn’t work much, but work with assurance. ——. Thy will be done.

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