Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: Theology After Wittgenstein, by Fergus Kerr

Theology After Wittgenstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I could describe Theology after Wittgenstein in two words, it would be intriguingly disappointing. It's intriguing mainly because of what the title infers. Ordinarily, one does not associate theology proper with the philosophical investigations of Wittgenstein. Nor does one ordinarily think that Wittgenstein could help reshape Christian epistemology. Yet this is the road that Fergus Kerr attempted to pave.

Kerr divided the book into three parts: 1) Stories of the soul, 2) Changing the subject, and 3) Theology without the mental ego. In part one, Kerr sorts through some the ways in which Rene Descarte’s philosophical writings and Saint Augustine’s Confessions have influenced the Western traditions of theology. His concerns are mainly aimed at those traditions of Cartesian-like ego that reduce objectivity in meaning to the mind of the solitary individual, thereby indirectly influencing a fixation of dispassionate objectivity in real knowledge, and the correlative retreat into subjectivism in morallity and aesthetics which dominates many people’s lives in Western culture. Kerr observes that, “The inclination to think of meaning, or any other mental or spiritual activity, as something that is radically private, ‘in our head,’ is explicitly related to the ancient religious myth of the soul” (p. 43). This radically private source of meaning, as Kerr derives from Wittgenstein’s work on the subject, is egocentric and “needs no demonstration” (p. 41). Working with a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions concerning an infant self already aware of its own identity and what is going on around it, prior to and independently of mastering a particular language, Kerr points out a serious dilemma regarding this epistemological identity of ‘self’ in the world. Utilizing Wittgenstein’s observations in this regard, Kerr writes:
Language is assumed to be necessary neither for framing one’s thoughts nor for identifying one’s desire. Prior to, and independently of, all ability to talk, one is supposed to be already aware of one’s mental states and acts. The self is pictured as ‘inside’, fluttering with its limbs, spluttering out words, striving with gruntings, and so on, to get its mind understood by the surrounding company. One has to be taught to read and write, but we apparently learn to speak by a sort of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” (p. 41).

Kerr begins by paving a new way of appreciating Christian theology, and that new way is paved by beginning with Wittgenstein and reconsidering his approach to this epistemological dilemma, which was to learn the value of exposing our Cartesian and Augustinian metaphysical illusions about the place of the self in nature and history.

In part two, Kerr dives into the nitty-gritty of how Wittgenstein exposed certain Cartesian and Augustinian metaphysical illusions about the ‘self’ which the Western world has inherited. “Wittgenstein strives to voice our deepest metaphysical inclinations in order to permit ‘an acknowledgement of human limitations which does not leave us chafed by our own skin’.” (p. 76). “Again and again, Wittgenstein reminds the reader that all meaning, even the very gesture of pointing something out, must have conceptual links with the whole system of the human way of doing things together. There is nothing inside one’s head that does not owe its existence to one’s collaboration in a historical community” (p. 76). “Wittgenstein’s constant theme is that, for our inner life, we are radically dependent on customs, uses, and institutions.” (p. 77). Kerr’s unique contribution in this part of the book is to argue that Wittgenstein has been falsely labeled as a struggling realist or idealist of sorts, when in fact he offered a distinctive challenge to both—that our human experience and relation to the world is neither essentially cognitive nor a mere description of brute facts that are mind-independent realities. According to Wittgenstein, “what is primary and foundational” of our relation to the world is “neither ideas nor beliefs nor any other class of mental events, but human beings in a multiplicity of transactions with one another.” (p. 119). For Wittgenstein, even our experiential use of language is better understood as an expressive activity, with the ‘self’ as a responsive agent in vital connection with others (p. 134). “We are so much accustomed to communication through speaking, in conversation,” Wittgenstein observed, “that it looks to us as if the whole point of communication lay in this: someone else grasps the sense of my words—which is something mental: he as it were takes it into his own mind. If he then does something further with it as well, that is no part of the immediate purpose of language.” (p. 141).

In part three, Kerr offers a fresh perspective of Wittgenstein in light of some overlooked theological aspects present in his later writings. He then explores a handful of ways in which Wittgenstein’s insights affect the metaphysical implications of Christian theology.

Some of the most insightful questions in the book that Kerr asks the reader to consider are found on page 147:
Why is it that we doubt it can be in mere words or signs or bodily activities that we discover anything interesting about our inner selves or about the divine? Why is it that we are so strongly tempted to turn away from what we say and do, as if these were not ‘significant’ enough?”

Kerr responds to these questions by, of course, appealing to Wittgenstein’s insights:
“Wittgenstein reminds us that we have no alternative to attending to the signs, the repertoire of gestures and so on that interweave our existence. We have no access to our own minds, non-linguistically. We have no access to the divine, independently of our life and language. It goes against the grain, so captivated are we by the metaphysical tradition, but Wittgenstein keeps reminding us of the obvious fact: we have nothing else to turn to but the whole complex system of signs which is our human world. The great question remains: why do we retreat from our world; why do we withdraw from the body in hope that more direct illumination about our minds and about the gods is to be found by gaining access to something other than what we say and do? This is the hidden theological agenda of Wittgenstein’s later writings.

All of this leads me to finally mention why I originally described this book as intriguingly disappointing. As I trenched through the muddy terrain of Cartesian philosophical bias’ and epistemological dilemmas, I longed for the goal of practical application. Instead, when I reached the end where I thought I would learn the profound impact of Wittgenstein upon practical theological affairs, I found more of the same regurgitated ideas about radically questioning the whole way of thinking about one’s ‘self’ in relation to God and others in this world. That, to me, was a big let down. Even though the journey through Kerr’s research of Wittgenstein initially peaked my interest and held it for a while, in the end I found it to be disappointing, at least, as far as his own stated application of those insights are concerned. I might have missed it, but Kerr seems to have overlooked all of the orthodox Trinitarian insights that arise from his research. I suspect that he avoided a full-fledged discussion of those insights because Wittgenstein would not have contributed favorably, having repudiated any need to advance traditional metaphysical jargon altogether in the way we speak about God and the nature of reality.

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