Understanding the Question:

Wittgenstein on Faith and Meaning




1. Eccentric Senses of 'Belief' and 'Question'


            The role of belief in  religion  is  always  the  subject  of  the greatest misunderstandings, as well as some of the subtlest meditations. The student of religion may be drawn to those direct  expressions  of  spiritual insight  with regard to which belief seems abstract and superfluous; and yet when one wants to indicate the religious attitude, the commitment to  "something higher", as a fact of personal significance, few notions seem more apt than belief or faith. The peculiar logic of religious faith is  that  unlike beliefs  which are held in lieu of verified knowledge, faith is often valued precisely because it is faith, and does not concern the objectively  verifiable.


            Although this surely expresses an important  spiritual  truth,  it creates  an  impression  of  eccentricity,  because  we are quick to connect believing with justification and confirmation,  and  to  understand  mystery only  as the hiddenness of some fact. A similar eccentricity pertains to the notion of questioning for its own sake (i.e., in order to develop a particular sense  of  questionableness),  rather than  for the sake of getting an answer. This sense of questioning increasingly defines the position  of  the philosopher, who is gradually giving up the idea that his job is to investigate certain sublime facts about the world (any more than it is the task  of the  theologian  to  demonstrate facts about God). Ludwig Wittgenstein, as a young man, wrote three sentences which connect  this  sense  of  questioning with  belief  in God, in such a way as to illuminate the logic (and thus the apparent eccentricity) of both.


1. To believe in a God means to understand the question about the meaning of life.

2. To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.

3. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.[1]


            In the first sentence believing is connected with understanding  a question.   One  can  surmise  that this understanding is something over and above having (i.e. asking) the question ‑‑ some positive insight which   constitutes the  ground of the belief. But understanding a question is not the same as answering it, although it may entail that one knows how  to  answer. The  third sentence seems to refer to an answer, but it is puzzling: it does not actually speak of seeing the meaning in life, but only  of  seeing that there is one. Since in each case it is a matter of defining belief in  God,  one may  suppose  that  "seeing  that  life has a meaning" is to be equated with understanding the question about it. The situation might then  be  analogous  to  understanding the question, "What is 3577 times 41903?" Here understanding means seeing that there is a rule for proceeding, knowing  what  it  is, and  knowing  that one could get the answer by following it. But in the case of the meaning or sense (Sinn) of life, I think that more is implied. Seeing that  "there  is"  meaning  in  this case is very close to, if not identical with, seeing "what it is". And this implies that  "understanding  the   question" here means more than knowing what to do in response to it ‑‑ it means actually  doing what is appropriate. To clarify this doing is to see  through the  eccentricity of the question which seeks no answers and the faith which takes no support from objective facts.



2. Facts and the Problem


            To explain this positivity in the absence of  answers  and  facts, let us start from the second of Wittgenstein's sentences. "That the facts of the world are not the end of the matter" is  an  expression  of  challenging simplicity.  It  does not refer to some other‑worldly facts to be contrasted with worldly ones, for 'world' here means all the facts, "all  that  is  the case."[2] If this makes  the expression  sound  like  a  riddle,  something Wittgenstein wrote  near  the  end  of his life might show the direction in which it aims. In speaking of the  belief in  God as the ground of all phenomena, he said:


            The attitude that's in question is that of taking a matter seriously and then, beyond a certain point, no longer regarding it as serious, but  maintaining that something else is even more important.[3]


Presumably this "something else"  which grounds all facts is in no  sense  a fact itself.


            Wittgenstein does speak of differences in the "boundaries" of  "my world"[4] and of "transcendental marks"[5] which could distinguish a good or happy "world" or life from a bad one. This  sounds as if the "something else" really  were a fact in a simple sense;  as if it were only a question of  distinguishing, say, psychological facts from physical ones. Or again, he  sometimes  connects the "waxing and waning" of the world (i.e., of its "limits") with meaning and value; so that we seem to have the old fact/value dichotomy (a  distinction,  one  might  say,  of  "objective"‑facts  from  "value"‑ or "subjective"‑facts). And when he says that "we can call God the  meaning  of life, i.e. the meaning of the world",[6] he seems merely to  be  translating psychological  facts  into theological ones. Experiences of significance are made to "transcend" the individual by being posited in the universal  Ground of  significance  ‑‑  only  this ground is said to withdraw from all speech, "showing" itself but never letting itself be "said".


             Undoubtedly this "showing" has something to do with  the  distinction   in  "attitude"  mentioned  above,  but the matter remains unclear.  Is 'fact' being used here merely as a term for the  class  of  things  excluded from  Wittgenstein's concern? Is the notion of the "transcendental" merely a way of exalting a  certain  attitude  through  metaphysical  representation? Wittgenstein  was indeed prone to a romantic fascination with representation at that time ‑‑ a kind of shamanism with mathematical poetry that  he  later looked back on as an attempt to "bring something higher under the sway of my words."[7]


             And yet the essence of the insight that "the facts  of  the  world are  not  the end of the matter" is simpler than the explanation in terms of the subjective and the transcendental. This simple essence unfolds  a  richness of thought which, in thinking such as Wittgenstein himself later practiced,  overcomes the weaknesses of the transcendental attitude: it is not  a willful  attempt  to  bring "something higher" under our power, yet it maintains a quality of thought which still directs its  highest  estimations  of value  "above".  For example, in relation to his philosophical work, he wondered in 1947: "Is what I am doing worth the effort overall? Only as long as it receives a light from above....If the light from above isn't there, I can surely be no more than clever."[8] That which eludes all  demonstration  and analysis  is  here seen as the element of good fortune or grace in thinking, that which we cannot compel. This is characteristic of his later approach to  philosophizing.[9]


             Already in the Tractatus, the essence of the  thought  which  says "facts  aren't  the end of the matter" can be found, set though it is in the context of absolute limits and final solutions. In the midst of the  section which applies the notion of limits to language and the world (the facts), we find the sentence "The facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution," followed by this simple statement:


            It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.[10]


"How things are" says the same as "the facts"; "how things are"  always  and of  necessity  raises  a  certain  problem. But its solution, the "mystical"  insight "that life has a meaning", is connected only with  seeing that the world  exists. To  see this is not to see that some state of affairs rather than another is the case;[11] he even denies (in the course of  the  discussion  of  the  essence  of Logic)[12] that this insight is any experience at all.  Little wonder, then, that it cannot be put into words!


             Wittgenstein said that if the answer could not be put into  words, neither could the question ‑‑ but this pertains above all to the question he has talked  about understanding. Though  the  question  cannot  be  well‑formulated in accordance with  some theory of representation, it puts itself into words nonetheless; and these words can be understood, that is, appreciated. The fact of their occurrence is inexplicable ‑‑ and  thus not a "fact" ‑‑ just in the sense that they seem to lack a familiar context; they seem to point to something which is as unique as the drama of my own life. "The facts set the problem"; it pertains to their essentially finite or "limited" character. I would explain this "limit"  as only the limitation of being  present, of occurrence in the drama of life. Presence is the traditional concept for the mysterious interplay of universality and particularity, public meaning and privacy or silence, which is expressed in Wittgenstein's words. What's important is to see this limiting boundary as a form‑giving one, or again as a light in which things take on a new intelligibility. Where  the  limit  is  appreciated as a certain dramatic  contextuality,  religious belief  and philosophical understanding may coincide.



3. Appreciation of the Problem through the 'limit' of Presence


            For young Wittgenstein, a fact is a fact in so far  as  it  enters into  "my  world", that is, the field or horizon of intelligibility implicit  in language. The horizon is the horizon of presence: of the givenness  of  a determinate  meaning or state of affairs.  Metaphysics is familiar with this givenness "as such" under the names of 'intuition', 'inner sense', etc.  The limitation  of  the facts in their accessibility to us can also be expressed as subjectivity or the finitude of thought.


             But implicit in all such expressions is this "limitation" of presence: the  requirement that meaning be determinate because it enters into the real (current) situation, with real  (past)  conditions  and  real  (future) implications.  "Presence" names the actuality of a situation in the sense of that which compels our judgments and  interpretations  of  experience  at  a  given  time  ‑‑  that  which really is. And that which is present is always correlative to some possible act of perceiving/interpreting;  whatever compels  us can only do so in ways by which we are ready to be compelled, i.e., which we are able to notice. There is an interdependence thus  expressed  in the  notion  of presence which can be viewed from the side of the object, as causal dependence (in terms of realism and determinism), or from the side of the subject, as the original receptivity which has freely yielded in advance to that which is allowed to compel and determine it (Idealism). Wittgenstein feels  this bivalence as a tension, a struggle between two "godheads" (world and transcendental ego).[13] The notion of limit symbolizes the  tension  in terms  of "inside" and "outside": for Wittgenstein, silence is the non‑being which forms the background and boundary, embracing all existence in an original, passive freedom.


             "The problem" refers to the disparate relation between human significance,  urgent  and  undeniable  with regard to its fulfillment, and  the unaccomodating, contingent facts in and among  which  significance  must  be situated  and  discovered.  Awareness of the question occurs most vividly  in the sense of self‑presence, presence to oneself; in other words, a   dramatic sense of  ongoing life, or as Wittgenstein more precisely said,  "consciousness of the uniqueness of my life."[14] The  absolute  character  of  self‑presence  (of  the  horizon,  the  Kantian "I think") is felt as the free or "original" side of the limitation of presence: it owes nothing to that which fate  may send to appear within it ("the facts"). It is indebted only to the givenness of being as such ‑‑ "that the world is there." This  givenness  is not  "experienced"  in  the  sense  of  being given, being present; it makes itself felt rather in the silence  that  precedes  and  outlasts  everything present. And yet this existential truth, with its attendant freedom, belongs only to the "limit‑situation",[15] to the momentary rupture in  "the   facts" (and  our  taking‑account of them) which lets "that it's there"  be felt. The sense of pure presence is due to  a  contrast  with  the   temporal  flow  of experience,  a  contrast which necessarily cannot be maintained as such (since to maintain is to integrate in the flow). As time goes on, the boundary‑experience itself becomes "a fact": in attempting to integrate the boundary‑experience in order to realize the freedom it promises, the thinker sees the boundary enclosing the facts as an interface where "something higher" shows its features. The "pure here‑now" becomes a sort of standard for the accomplishment of life processes; but it is a standard which refuses to remain fixed (every time you try to apply the standard, it turns out you have to grasp from the beginning what you thought you had just settled). Because  of  this,  Wittgenstein says "Man cannot make himself happy without further ado."[16]


             What I want to say is that "understanding the question" is part of this  further ado; or rather, it is both the preliminary glimpse of the pure possibility of freedom in the "limit‑situation", and the  protracted  effort to make that possibility actual. In the latter sense it means somehow bringing the limitedness of the facts into their everyday appearance ‑‑ gradually  making  them shine with the light "from above". And yet this "shining" as it grows somehow never loses its character of dawning, i.e., of original glimpse ... and thus of pure presence.


             Wittgenstein also used the language of illumination in  his  later years  to  describe  the  dissolution of the problem of life ‑‑ that is, the understanding which is not answering, but only attainment of the   comprehensive perspective.[17] He said first that someone who saw no problem in  life struck him as "living blindly, like a mole." Such a person must  first  come to  the point of sorrow ‑‑ must see that his or her own life does not accord with Life, feeling in this sense "sick" or sinful ‑‑ and then, as part of an overall process of living appropriately, see the sorrow change from a "dubious background" obscuring the facts to  a  "bright  halo"  surrounding,  and  presumably illuminating them.


             Not only is this language  of  conversion  and  healing  obviously religious,  it  addresses  precisely  the  nexus  of religious meaning where "belief" plays its part: in the process of receiving the light  from  above, there  is  undoubtedly a sense of gratefulness, love and trust which implies reliance on or being in accord with something, and thus, taking things in  a certain  perspective, or again, taking them seriously up to a point... In so far as trust and love falter and evade us, in so far as the serious and  the frivolous  continually  switch  places, faith itself becomes something to be pursued and cultivated. It is not a state of mind into which we  can  simply  put  ourselves,  but something into which we can grow: "Life can educate one to a belief in God."[18] A proof which would turn faith into certainty would attempt to bring the illumination under its sway (to register it on  propositional film). It would end up extinguishing the light, by removing its peculiar "halo"‑like or background character (making it a present, focused fact).


             In faith which maintains itself for the sake of the  spreading  of the  light,  the "limit‑situation" is opened up to its own "insides", to the discovery of meaning amongst "the facts". How then does it maintain the  simplicity  of  "that  it's there"? How does it experience the conviction "that life has a meaning"? It preserves the background or "halo"  of  the  insight "that  it  is"  through continued meditation on the circle of presence ‑‑ of becoming‑present and self‑presence.



4. Presence and Faith


            On the same day that Wittgenstein wrote his three sentences  about belief  in God, he concluded: "Only someone who lives not in time but in the present is happy." The horizon of  presence,  of  intelligibility, had to be closed  to the past and future ‑‑ closed in order to exclude death, fear and hope;[19] and closed so as to insure the determinacy of all  language.  Only within   this  closure could propositions be true; only from the transcendental standpoint, the view of things as they appear in the  limit‑situation,  only "in the light of eternity" could the world be found good and life happy.


             And yet we know that language is historical. No one can  teach  us this  better  than  the  author  of the Philosophical Investigations. And a deeper sense of happiness applies not to the moment but, as Aristotle  said, to  someone's  life  as  a whole. If we needed to be reminded of the painful necessity of the "futher ado" and of the dynamic meaning  of  the  limit  of presence,  Kierkegaard  would  remind  us:  as  when,  after pointing to the "deception concealed in contemplation", which lies in the way it "foreshortens time" in order to give rise to a "spurious  eternal  well‑roundedness", he   evokes  the  plight of one who is deceived into thinking that truth lies only in the limit‑situation:


            Now instead of keeping his contemplation to himself and  holding  himself to  the  contemplation in order to penetrate time with it in a direct but gradual manner, the double‑minded person lets time cut  him off  from  contemplation....  The moment of contemplation he had recklessly  misunderstood as being earnest, and then  as  this  earnestness really  approached,  he threw off contemplation, and misunderstood the moment of contemplation as a delusion, until he again becomes earnest in the moment of contemplation.[20]


Self‑presence is the "uniqueness of my life" as the immediate insight  "that it's  there"; but the urgent and compelling character of my present dramatic involvements gets closed off by the image of a perfect (complete) world glimpsed  in "the  present".   Self‑presence  gets  entangled  in representation (and the  theory of representation), in maintenance of the closure of intelligibility, rather  than  being  opened  by and into earnestness. The freedom associated with "life in the present" becomes detached from its contextual meaning  due to  the  impression of "universality" it creates. 


             But presence itself is the opening out of future as well as the closing up of the past. And traditional pictures  of subjectivity (ranging from transcendental schemata to the  problems of "philosophy of mind") are best viewed as poses which are  not   maintained,  which  stand  outside  of ordinary language in implicit disdain  for "the facts". Wittgenstein devoted his mature philosophizing to deconstructing  the  linguistic pictures of self‑presence;but this does not  signify any rejection of the sense of presence.[21] On the contrary, his  enterprise  is an effort to earnestly engage "the facts" in such a way that they are  made to  reflect the superior light, and never to assert themselves as the end of the matter.


            In order to take things seriously "up to a point",  I  must  first take them seriously. This  "point" has a contextual definiteness which is only symbolized by the transcendental, by  what  Pierce called  "our glassy  essence"  ‑‑ the frozen immediacy of self‑presence. We can indeed bound our primary concerns with a contextual  temporal  wholeness which, "taking the long view", puts things into a "higher" perspective. This dramatic contextuality corresponds, phenomenologically, to the way  we  live within  language, in an original familiarity with it. But its wholeness is not a simple immediacy. It is an irregular web of particular practices and historical sedimentations of meaning, habit and perception.


             The "glassy essence" can be a representation for  the  soul  in  a practical  spiritual sense ‑‑ for the silence embracing experience in a halo of respect for what is higher. But in metaphysics it is inevitably taken  as a fact, an object of knowledge:  the "glassy essence" is the answer to questions about  self‑presence.  By  exposing  the  representational  confusions inherent  in  such  answers, Wittgenstein restores the openness of embracing silence to its actual dramatic context. (I mean, this can be the effect of his writing in particular cases; and I believe it is the effect he desired.) The fact "that life has  a  meaning" can  then be appreciated in the particularity of the way life "is there" and is meaningful. Every time a question about  the  "glassy  essence"  is   dissolved,  the  invisible halo around the facts is better understood ‑‑ and, we could also say, it is better believed. Better understood,  in  that  we get more  in  touch with our own motivations for clinging to the representations of freedom, more in tune with the basic rhythms of presence and absence in our  lives  as they are (rather than as they "must be" or are supposed to  be in the limit‑situation). Better believed, in that the eccentric  opening of the circle of presence enlivens our thinking, not as an outside stance which we re‑present, but as the element of grace in thinking  which  embraces  the factual  in  trust and love. This embrace is the apprehension of the meaning which "lies outside the world", because in it we do not objectify ‑‑ rather, we respond, we acknowledge, we act: we learn the possibility of living  meaningfully as itself being the "message", or good  news,  which is ever new because it lies only in the act of embracing.


            This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believingly (i.e., lovingly). That is  the  certainty  characterizing  this  particular holding‑for‑true, not something else.[22]



[1]. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Notebooks 1914‑1916, edited by G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe (translated by Anscombe), Harper and Row, N.Y. 1961, p.74

[2]. cf. the first sentence of Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico‑Philosophicus 1921

[3]. Culture and Value edited by G.H. Von Wright, translated by Peter Winch, University of Chicago Press, 1980 p.85 

[4]. Notebooks p.73; Tractatus 6.43

[5]. Notebooks p.78

[6]. Notebooks p. 74

[7]. "Remarks on Frazer's The Golden Bough"  ‑‑ notes from the early 1930's, published in Synthese vol.XVII, 1967 (the translation is from a privately circulated copy made by A.R. Manser)


"If in that time I began to speak of the 'World' (and not of this tree or table) what could my intention have been other than to bring something higher under the sway of my words?"

[8]. Culture and Value p.57 (my translation)

[9]. It does not indicate an objectification of the "source" of grace, but belongs with the notion that a piece of philosophy is only valuable for someone who is ready to receive it, or that "No one can speak the truth if he still has not mastered himself." (Culture and Value), p.35

[10]. Tractatus 6.44

[11]. He does not conceive of the question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

[12]. Tractatus 5.552

[13]. Notebooks p.74

[14]. Notebooks p.79

[15]. The term is Jaspers', but it fits perfectly here.

[16]. Notebooks  p.76 

[17]. Culture and Value p.27 for the following quotes

[18]. Culture and Value p.86

[19]. Notebooks p.76

[20]. Kierkegaard, Soren 

Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing Harper & Bros., N.Y. 1938

[21]. cf. his remarks recorded by Friedrich Waismann in 1929:


"I can only say: I don't belittle this human tendency; I take my hat off to it. And here it is essential that this is not a sociological description but that I speak for myself. For me the facts are unimportant. But what men mean when they say "The world is there" lies close to my heart." All this is in the background of the statement that the Philosophical Investigations gets its "light, that is to say, their purpose" from the philosophical problems.

[22]. Culture and Value p.32