Wittgenstein in Christian Categories?

Here are the final few paragraphs from an essay of mine (forthcoming soon in a volume of Orthodox philosophers):

Lately, I have been attempting to transfigure my understanding of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I have been attempting to understand Wittgenstein’s philosophizing in Christian categories. I believe there is hope for such an understanding. Wittgenstein himself said that he could not help seeing philosophical problems from a religious point of view. Of course, it is not perfectly clear what he meant by saying that, but he certainly could have meant that his work can be understood, maybe even that it is best understood, in Christian categories. (I little doubt that ‘religious’, for him, meant Christian, or at least Judeo-Christian.) I am currently telling myself that the key Christian categories for understanding his work are prelest and podvig.

Consider: “And the Lord God said unto the woman, ‘What is this that thou hast done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me and I did eat’”Genesis 13: 3.

‘Prelest’: the nearest English equivalent is ‘beguilement’ or ‘bewitchment’— but the meaning of the term seems to be simultaneously somewhat broader and more technical, and so it is best to leave it untranslated. Bishop Ignatiy Brianchaninov thematized ‘prelest’ as the corruption of human nature through the acceptance by man of mirages mistaken for truth. We are all in prelest. I hope the nearest English equivalents show the suitability of the term for discussing Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein employs prelest-language throughout the book: ‘bewitchment’, ‘temptation’, ‘superstition’,‘illusion’, ‘scruples’, ‘picture’, ‘haze’, ‘fog’, ‘chimera’, ‘sham’, ‘dazzlement’, ‘preconceived idea’, ‘false appearance’, ‘latent nonsense’, etc. But Wittgenstein target is not spiritual prelest generally, but rather cognitive prelest specifically. (Cognitive prelest is a species of spiritual prelest—so I think and so I think Wittgenstein thought.) We are all in cognitive prelest.

‘Podvig’: the nearest English equivalent is the phrase ‘ascetic struggle’ or, perhaps, ‘moral heroism’—but the meaning of the term is, again, somewhat broader and more technical than these phrases, so I leave it untranslated. Here is a use of the term by Bishop Theophan the Recluse:

The true Christian tests himself every day. Daily testing to see whether we have become better or worse, is so essential for us that without it we cannot be called Christians. Constantly and persistently we must take ourselves in hand. Do this: from the morning establish thoughts about the Lord firmly in your mind and then during the whole day resist any deviation from these thoughts. Whatever you are doing, with whomever you are speaking, whether you are going somewhere or sitting, let your mind be with the Lord. You will forget yourself, and stray from this path; but again turn to the Lord and rebuke yourself with sorrow. This is the podvig of spiritual attentiveness.

What Wittgenstein demands of himself and his reader is the podvig of cognitive attentiveness. We must take ourselves in hand and learn the wiles, subterfuges, ruses and stratagems that (our life with) language employs against us. Wittgenstein knows we will forget ourselves, let ourselves slip out of hand: “…in despite of an urge to misunderstand…” He knows we will stray from this path, fail in our attentiveness or have our attentiveness deceived: “A philosophical problem has the form: I do not know my way about.” The point of cognitive podvig is the gradual cognitive self-perfection of the person undergoing it. Because this is the point, and so is the point of Philosophical Investigations, it is hard to answer someone who asks after the point of Wittgenstein’s teaching, and who expects the answer to take the form of a philosophical thesis. To learn from Wittgenstein is to undertake the podvig of gradual cognitive self-perfection via self-attentiveness, self-denial and self-discipline. It is above all to live a certain kind of life of the mind, to practice a demanding discretio, to wage an unseen warfare. It is not above all to advocate philosophical theses.

Although I will not take the time to develop the thought, Wittgenstein’s work can be seen as targeting the Gnostic and the Barlaamite who hides in the heart of the philosopher, as targeting the notion that it is by progress of knowledge that we become wise.  Wittgenstein’s work, if successful, can be seen as opening the possibility of a vision of God that is no intellectual grasp of an external object, but rather an inward participation in the life of the Holy Spirit, a vision in which to see God is to share in the life of the Holy Spirit, to become divinized, not just intellectually, but as a whole person, body and soul. Wittgenstein opens the possibility that philosophy is finally best understood as an orientation towards grace, indeed as a love of grace.

forthcoming in Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (Rico Vitz, ed.)

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