Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

16. Ethics, aesthetics and philosophy of religion

In the Tractatus Wittgenstein consigns ethics to the realm of the unsayable, and he takes the same line in his ‘Lecture on Ethics’ ([1929] 1993). Here he says that ethics (which he links to aesthetics and religion) arises from a tendency in the human mind to try to express in words something - roughly the existence and nature of absolute value - which seems to manifest itself to us in certain experiences. (He gives as an instance the experience of finding the existence of the world miraculous.) It is essential to this impulse that it seeks to go beyond the world and significant language; so it is bound to issue in utterances which are nonsensical. Nevertheless, he says, he has the greatest respect for this impulse and would not for his life ridicule it.

This position resembles the emotivism associated with logical positivism in distinguishing ethical utterances sharply from those of science (that is, those which are capable of rational assessment, and can be true or false). But it also differs from it in being, in spirit, an ethical realism, albeit of a mystical kind.

In his later writing he rethought his views on meaning, mathematics and the mind but did not return to any sustained discussion of ethics or aesthetics (although there are scattered remarks, particularly on the aesthetics of music, in Culture and Value (1980)). One interpretation of the later outlook, however, provides a hospitable setting for an ethical realism of a less mysterious kind, one which allows for the statement and rational discussion of truth-evaluable ethical claims. Philosophers of meta-ethics taking themselves to be working within a Wittgensteinian outlook have urged that our inclination to insist on a dichotomy between fact and value, or between cognition and feeling, should be resisted, as the outcome of the grip on us of some misapplied picture. Moreover Wittgenstein’s emphasis on attention to the actual workings of language could encourage a distinctive approach to first order ethical questions (see Wittgensteinian ethics §2). But he himself never developed this, nor does he engage with issues in political philosophy.

The later outlook enjoins us to study each distinctive area of language as far as possible without preconceptions. If we do this for religious language, Wittgenstein holds, we shall see that religion is not a kind of science and hence is not open to criticism on the grounds that, as science, it is unconvincing (see, for example, ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough’ ([1931] 1993)). Some take it that this implies that no religious utterance can be properly subject to any criticism other than that coming from inside the same religious community or tradition.

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. Ethics, aesthetics and philosophy of religion. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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