Therapy, Ethics, and Religiosity: The Necessity of Conversion Included in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Therapy


In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, he writes that the ideal philosopher “treats a question; like an illness” (PI 255). This move from treating a question as something to be answered to treating it as something to be cured might encapsulate the focus of the Investigations; it certainly sums up Wittgenstein’s approach to various problems relating to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of logic, and the philosophy of mind. In this sense, Wittgenstein considers his method therapeutic and concludes that philosophy should do nothing more than demonstrate how its own questions are rooted in mistake. But Wittgenstein does not treat one particular question which, in light of his therapeutic method, seems particularly problematic: “What ought I to do?” i.e. the ethical question. This paper seeks to perform Wittgensteinian therapy on that question. In section I, I present my interpretation of Wittgenstein’s therapy, which I argue entails both intellectual and aesthetic reversals. In section II, I use my interpretation of his therapy to begin treating the ethical question, attempting to at least provide a model of the therapy which intellectually treats the question. In section III, I show that a full treatment of the ethical question will necessarily entail a positive ethical account, and suggest one such account by an appeal to a religious aesthetic rather than a philosophic one. I conclude with a discussion of the ethical purpose of the Investigations in light of this positive account.

I. Philosophy and Therapy

In order to establish a firm understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophical therapy, we must start with the so-called illness. What, exactly, is the philosophical condition which Wittgenstein intends to cure? Though it is tempting to answer with “participating in the western philosophical tradition,” i.e. engaging in the content of most western philosophy courses, it is not clear that Wittgenstein’s project is focused upon targeting such a broad, academic audience; since Wittgenstein himself fails to specify exactly who he is targeting, it is helpful to situate him within his philosophical milieu. G.P. Baker and P.M.S Hacker portray Bertrand Russell, one of Wittgenstein’s influences, as representing the antithesis of Wittgenstein’s philosophical therapy in his advocating philosophy as “the most general of sciences” (Baker and Hacker, 458). In reaction to the worry that philosophy has, after two millennia, achieved no concrete breakthroughs comparable to those of the sciences, Russell sought to develop a philosophical system that could support an accumulation of theories and therefore provide an avenue for progress. As Baker and Hacker write, Russell thought that philosophy’s lack of progress “is a symptom that philosophers have been mistaken in their methods. The remedy is to emulate the method the sciences follow with such conspicuous success” (ibid). Without further investigation of Russell’s theory, we already have a clear illustration of a condition that Wittgenstein intends to cure. The philosopher finds that he is dissatisfied, for the intellectual tradition that he finds himself within has apparently failed to provide adequate answers to the problems that it poses. His dissatisfaction operates on two levels: (i) meta-philosophically, in his dissatisfaction with philosophy as a whole – for example, the realization that philosophy has made such little progress while the sciences have, and (ii) philosophically, in his dissatisfaction with his own answers (or lack of answers) to the questions of philosophy. This dissatisfaction, as Baker and Hacker note, is unconsciously taken as a “symptom”: but rather than the symptom prompting a diagnostic process, i.e. the description of why one feels as one does, it prompts the philosopher to seek out a novel way of solving the problems, as Russell did. Wittgenstein rejects this second method as the appropriate response to philosophical dissatisfaction.

In writing “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’,” (PI 123) Wittgenstein implicitly identifies this condition of dissatisfaction with Plato’s aporia, the state of being at a loss that one finds himself within upon realizing that he lacks knowledge. Wittgenstein’s remark highlights that philosophical problems are formally aporetic; it is the nature of a philosophical problem to effect aporia. Where our portrait of Russell depicts him as unconsciously taking aporia as a symptom of philosophical failure, Wittgenstein contends that philosophy is essentially aporetic: to engage in philosophic discourse is to be at a loss. And it is a specific kind of lostness that Wittgenstein describes as the aporetic condition, one produced by grammatical confusion rather than lack of knowledge. The problems of philosophy begin in mistake. He writes, “what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them in speech, or see them written or in print. For their use is not that obvious” (PI 11). Here Wittgenstein, in highlighting the uniform appearance of words, may be noting a variety of phenomena: that a sentence in our language always requires a subject and a predicate, that we have adjectival and nominal forms of the same word (e.g. happy and happiness), that our verbs alternate between different forms (is, to be, being), etc. Whatever the nature of the uniformity, it produces problems which arise when the use of a word is not obvious and therefore is confused with a different, unintelligible (thought seemingly intelligible) usage. This may be the moment when, for example, we see that “His sermon was very meaningful,” is an intelligible sentence, and so we begin to wonder, “Is life meaningful? What is the meaning of life?” although that usage is not grounded in the same practice as the former. And at this stage, language is officially suspended: “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (PI 38). And so the formal beginning of philosophy – the articulation of a philosophical problem – arises out of a mistaken approximation as to the usage of certain words and phrases.

There is, however, an additional element which contributes to the philosopher’s aporia: what more idealistic thinkers have termed “wonder” concerning the problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein discusses in terms of “captivation”. In comment 114, Wittgenstein includes a confessional remark regarding his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he claims that the prior work was an attempt at capturing the essence of reality; immediately following, he writes, “A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably” (PI 115). This confession introduces the aesthetic relationship of the philosopher to the question: the aporetic condition extends beyond a misunderstanding of language to a seemingly inescapable attachment to that misunderstood language. The picture held them captive because it was captivating, being rooted in the language they had adopted and deeply seated within their aesthetic framework, i.e. “the frame through which we look at it” (PI 114). This aesthetic results when a philosopher, having been mistaken about his language, becomes wedded to the philosophical vocabulary; this contributes to “an urge to misunderstand [the workings of our language]” (PI 109). This urge is motivated by some attractive ideal located within the philosophical vocabulary: in Wittgenstein’s case, he reports that this ideal was the “crystalline purity of logic” (PI 107). Robert Fogelin, however, discusses how this aesthetic might develop given any philosophic vocabulary, and that the general process runs thus: “Impressed by a certain feature of language, we elevate it to the status of a model for the description of all language. We become absorbed in certain similes and distort phenomena to fit under them” (Fogelin 141).

It is this distortion that characterizes Wittgenstein’s aporia, as the philosophical language begins to conflict with the language from which it was derived. This leads the philosopher to the form of the philosophical problem: “I don’t know my way about” (PI 123). The philosopher unconsciously abandons language informed by practice, and thus loses the ground upon which he conducts his reasoning. For philosophical discourse is conducted in language – yet Wittgenstein maintains that the philosopher is only utilizing the appearance of language, a confused language, not a language legitimated by practice. The tension produced by the conflict between this pseudo-language and legitimate language effects aporia: “We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers” (PI 106). Moreover, the philosopher’s aesthetic binds him to his aporia, as he remains attracted to his mistaken notion of an ideal because of its sheer impressiveness. It is this combination of mistaking language’s usage and adopting the philosophic aesthetic that constitutes aporia; aporia is therefore not, as the traditional philosophers might say, an indication that one doesn’t “actually know” something. As Wittgenstein would say, this response would itself be grounded in the mistaken language.

Wittgenstein’s response, on the other hand, is therapy . I will present a plausible account of Wittgenstein’s “justification” for his therapy later in this essay, as I find that it is deeply intertwined with the possibility of positive ethics stemming from the Investigations; for now, our interest is in the therapeutic method itself. As aporia results from both (i) the mistaken application of language and (ii) the philosophic aesthetic engrossed in that mistake, effective therapy would require both an intellectual reorientation and an aesthetic reorientation. This, I argue, is just what we find in the Investigations.

The intellectual reorientation occurs upon the moment that the philosopher realizes his error and corrects it. Having realized his mistake, the philosopher will reappropriate language grounded in usage, and his philosophical problems will disappear; as such, there will be no need for them to be answered. Wittgenstein’s greatest challenge here is resisting a method that itself adopts a philosophical vocabulary and thereby fails to adequately escape aporia . In order to avoid this, he resists explanation and emphasizes description: “All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light – that is to say, its purpose – from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; but they are solved through an insight into the workings of our language” (PI 109). This process appears to operate sequentially: (1) the philosopher realizes that he is at a loss, having engaged philosophically with a problem; (2) he, or his therapist, engages in the explanatory process of describing the language which the problem is couched within (i.e. the description gets its light from the problem); (3) the philosopher experiences an “insight” as to how the problem illegitimately arose, and he thus abandons his philosophical vocabulary and returns to legitimate language. Wittgenstein here uses the vague term “insight” intentionally, as he is avoiding positing a theoretical model as to the nature of “understanding” and is instead using experiential language to convey the immediate reality of the event. Such language, I might add, is grounded in usage, as when we say, “It all just clicked,” or, “A light bulb went off in my head”. Wittgenstein would betray his own position if he were to explain the nature of the insight.

Wittgenstein does, however, allow for more concrete methodological techniques in his therapy. He writes that some of our misunderstandings “can be removed by substituting one form of expression for another; this may be called ‘analyzing’ our forms of expression, for sometimes this procedure resembles taking a thing apart” (PI 90). Wittgenstein’s allowance for this being called “analysis” is explained by its common definition, “to take apart, to break up and examine”. More importantly, though, Wittgenstein’s remark is self-referential: in substituting “analysis” for “substituting one form of expression for another”, he demonstrates the spirit of his remark. For he does not intend to claim that such an analytic method would constitute a process that would reveal the “real meaning” of an expression; rather, he intends to show that it effects different ways of beholding the same expression. By beholding “analysis”, “substituting one expression for another”, and “taking apart and examining”, simultaneously, we may be able to grasp the ethereal connection between the three and understand how we came to assign “analysis” a special meaning, if we did at all. Thus the analysis does not provide an explanation, but rather arranges the circumstances such that an “insight” can occur; it is a method conducive to description, not explanation. Nevertheless, this method does allow for concrete, therapeutic techniques, should we find them amicable to achieving an insight.

Wittgenstein, however, does intend to push against a rigorous, singular methodology in the Philosophical Investigations: he makes this point clearly, in saying, “There is not a single philosophical [therapeutic] method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were” (PI 133, my note in parentheses). This remark respects the individuality of each patient’s experience, allowing Wittgenstein to avoid positing a theoretical and comprehensive model as to the phenomenology of aporia. It also, though, calls attention to the norm which Wittgenstein intends to effect through his therapy: a true aesthetic reversal. James Peterman describes this in saying: “Philosophical therapy, like aesthetic critique, is designed to get someone to change a philosophical view and ultimately his or her philosophical sensibility” (Peterman, 123, my italics). I will clarify, or perhaps dispute, Peterman’s word choice when he claims that philosophical therapy initially changes someone’s “philosophical view” – I maintain that Wittgenstein intends to defy the terms of philosophy altogether in effecting a non-philosophical view of a certain phenomenon in language. And ultimately, following Peterman’s claim, Wittgenstein intends to effect a non-philosophical sensibility, which is not a manner of beholding a single proposition or phenomenon but one’s entire world.

This distinction explains Wittgenstein’s intention in saying that “the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (PI 133). Questions disappear when we, in a sense, stop asking them. For the elimination of one philosophical problem through therapy cannot guarantee that the real problem is in fact treated, which is that the philosopher finds himself so wedded to the philosophical vocabulary. And so Wittgenstein’s positing that philosophy ought to be inherently therapeutic is done with an eye to effecting a sensibility that beholds language and phenomena in such a way as to not give rise to philosophical problems. This will entail a permanent abandonment of the philosophical vocabulary and a complete return to legitimated language. So, we take again our caricature of Russell. As we portrayed him, Russell’s philosophical problem was that, loosely speaking, philosophy had not quite uncovered truth as a result of deficiency in its methods; and so he developed an entirely new philosophical system that might be able to adequately answer the problems of philosophy. But let’s say that we now performed therapy on Russell, and through analysis got him to see that his new philosophy somehow stemmed from a misappropriation of language. Might we expect that his next move would be to develop an entirely new philosophical system? Because Russell (as we characterize him) is obsessed with finding the answers of the philosophical problems – and though we may have succeeded in getting him to realize that his one particular view was mistaken, there is no guarantee that this will make his philosophical problems completely disappear. What will make those problems completely disappear, though, is a total change of sensibility. James Edwards illustrates this nicely: “The change in belief about the temperature might well leave every other belief unaltered; the aesthetic reversal could not but bring about other differences in its train: hence calling it an alteration in sensibility” (Edwards, 135).
And, Wittgenstein posits, one of those “other differences” that the aesthetic reversal is supposed to bring about is peace. “The real discovery,” he writes, “is the one that enables me to break off philosophizing when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question” (PI 133). The state of being wedded to the philosophical vocabulary is characterized as torment – presumably because philosophical thinking is categorically at odds with the language from which it developed, and so can never provide adequate answers to its own questions. The philosophical sensibility will therefore live in continual disappointment – Russell’s realization that philosophy has provided inadequate answers to its own questions will continually happen. And so the aesthetic reversal, i.e. the “real discovery,” will allow the philosopher to not only abandon a philosophical issue but to stop philosophizing completely. This in turn will bring peace – freedom from philosophical captivation.

II. Treating the Question

And so, in summary, the cessation of philosophy brings the philosopher peace. It is in (i) treating the particular questions of philosophy – and experiencing an insight as to what mistake brought each question about – and (ii) in experiencing a change of sensibility which frees us from even wanting to engage in philosophy, that we are freed from philosophizing altogether and can then go about living our lives peacefully. This process, on some level, may intuitively strike us as plausible, even desirable, when we have philosophical questions in mind that seem categorically unsolvable and somewhat superfluous: for example, certain questions of metaphysics and epistemology (e.g. What is being? Is the cat on the mat?). I think, however, that this process seems deeply disturbing when applied to what I will call “the ethical question,” of which a common formulation is, “What ought I to do?” Nevertheless, the history of philosophy suggests that this question is distinctly philosophical – and certain formulations or treatments of this question have undoubtedly slipped into the kind of philosophical mistake that deserves therapy. I will attempt, using the methodologies outlined above, to hazard a Wittgensteinian treatment of this question. I do not intend to demonstrate that Wittgenstein’s method especially applies to one particular tradition, nor do I intend to claim that Wittgenstein himself would support my analysis. Rather, I intend to show how such a treatment remains consistent with Wittgensteinian therapy.

Stage 1: Aporia

The salient characteristic of any philosophical problem, and the indication that it deserves therapy, is that it effects aporia. In what sense might “What ought I to do?” be understood as formally aporetic? This particular question resembles Wittgenstein’s formal definition of the philosophical problem (PI 123) in two striking and distinct ways: (i) it is a confusion in language, in that it indicates that the philosopher does not know how to properly apply certain linguistic concepts (such as the word “ought”), and (ii) it is a clear articulation of ‘not knowing one’s way about’ in a very practical way, for it indicates that the philosopher very literally does not know his way about life. As such, the ethical question participates in the form of the philosophical problem in a much more apparent way than many philosophical questions: we could imagine a philosopher saying, “What ought I to do? I don’t know my about,” including the second sentence by way of explanation of the first. That is, the ethical question not only follows the aporetic form; it itself is also an expression of aporia. And if this is the case, then the question itself – when asked in a philosophical way – can legitimately be taken as a symptom of philosophical aporia. The therapist, therefore, has grounds to proceed.

Stage 2: Analysis

Given that the analytical process is one of the few concrete methods that Wittgenstein provides in the Philosophical Investigations, I will attempt to demonstrate it here as applied to “What ought I to do?” Recall that this will entail a type of “substituting one form of expression for another” (PI 90) that may provide the conditions under which an “insight” might occur. Firstly, let us examine the many different iterations of the question in an effort to perceive the language within which the question is buried. For example, the question may appear as: What ought I to do; What should I do; What is the right thing to do; What is the best thing to do; What is the best way to live; What is the right way to live; What action is the most moral; What is the moral life; What is the good life; etc. From this we see that the ethical question is intimately tied to language of compulsion (ought, should), language of correctness (right thing to do), superlative language (best thing to do, best way to live, most moral), language considering orientation towards life (the moral life, the good life) and language of value (moral, good), among other linguistic tropes.

Here we must tread carefully, for Wittgenstein stresses that therapy must abandon explanation and instead hinge upon pure description in order to legitimately free itself from philosophy. Thus, rather than attempting to reconstruct how these regions of our language brought about the ethical question, we will rather investigate those regions further. Compare these uses of such regions:

1. You really should go to the store; we’re out of cereal.
2. You ought to call her back, you said you would.
3. Everyone should donate around Christmas time.
4. Given the choice, you should fly Alaska instead of United.
5. It’s better to give food, and not money, to homeless people.
6. The right thing to do would be to pay for the parking ticket.
7. One should act only according to that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law.
8. Oh, I should just go to sleep, I won’t get anything more done tonight.
9. You should love your neighbor as yourself.

Which of these different uses, the therapist might ask, were you thinking of when you asked the question “What ought I to do?” Being generous, we might say uses 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 broadly fall under the question when asked philosophically, whereas uses 1, 4, and 8 certainly do not. However, the philosopher might really only have wanted an answer like 7 or 9 when they asked the question; or perhaps only an answer like 5. The important thing, though, is to notice that the grammar of example 1 is related to the grammar of example 7 – for both answers would function as appropriate responses to the question “What ought I to do” if it were asked under different circumstances.

Stage 3: Insight?

And having received such therapy – and, undoubtedly, much more – we are thus in a condition to experience an “insight” into the nature of our problem that allows us to dissolve it. I maintain that such an insight is ineffable under Wittgensteinian therapy – to articulate the insight would be to posit a theoretical model of the origin of a philosophical problem which would itself lead to philosophical problems. For example, one might be tempted to think that because obligatory language is utilized in example 2, we were tricked into applying that language to a non-existent universal standard, thereby making the question “What ought I to do?” misguided. But here, we have already slipped back into making a philosophical claim – namely a claim about the ontological status of a moral standard. And so a traditional philosopher might retort to our insight, “But how can you really know that the standard does not exist?” and we would have to defend ourselves philosophically. If, on the other hand, we allow our insight to remain an ineffable experience, taking the form of a realization that shakes us from the philosophical vocabulary and returns us to everyday language, we have legitimately escaped the problem.

III: A Religious Aesthetic

The second and more meaningful aspect of Wittgensteinian therapy is its emphasis on the aesthetic reversal. As I have argued, therapy is not complete until the philosophical questions have completely disappeared, and as such our therapy on this question is not finished until we have stopped asking it. And yet – can we stop asking such a question? As I have discussed, philosophical therapy intends to alleviate aporia, but it seems as if denying the meaningfulness of the ethical question is in fact condemning the philosopher to eternal aporia. For if we cannot ask “What ought I to do?” then what do we do? If we are not allowed to formulate theories concerning how to live our lives, then how will we live? Having treated the ethical question, it seems as if the philosopher might still be at a loss, if not intellectually then practically; for he remains without direction. For this reason, I argue that an effective aesthetic reversal will not only be one that entails the cessation of asking the ethical question, but also be one that includes an ethical reversal. For the patient cannot stop asking “What ought I to do?” until he knows what to do. In other words, the possibility of positive ethics must be included in any account of treating the ethical question with Wittgensteinian therapy; I will spend the rest of this paper discussing this possibility.

There is little help from within the Philosophical Investigations that aids in the construction of this positive account. Wittgenstein does, however, stipulate some provisions as to how we ought to go about it. The only clearly relevant remark that he includes is within proposition 77. Embodying a traditional, philosophical voice, he articulates the worry that his critique of philosophy will lead to the assertion that “everything – and nothing – is right.” Wittgenstein’s response, of course, neither directly attacks nor defends this claim; instead he notes that, “And this is the position in which, for example, someone finds in ethics or aesthetics when he looks for definitions that correspond to our concepts” (PI 77). Notice that the worry Wittgenstein’s interlocutor articulates is an expression of the aporetic condition, i.e. the form of the philosophical problem. And Wittgenstein’s response is to point out that aporia results when we look for ethical definitions that correspond to his concepts. Wittgenstein’s provision here is: do not attempt to draw absolute, one-to-one correlations between the thoughts presented in the Philosophical Investigations and ethics; this will lead to the formalization of a philosophical theory and therefore to continual enslavement to philosophy’s error. The particular position that Wittgenstein is guarding against is the ethical stance that “because I have performed therapy on the ethical question, everything goes.” This would represent a lapse into the philosophical sensibility, as it would continue to assume that ethical standards have ontological status (either “there” or “not there”) and that this status informs ethics.

With this in mind, I will turn to one more place in the Investigations that might prove useful in constructing a positive ethical account: Wittgenstein’s saying, “Once I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’”(PI 217). The corresponding ethical definition to such an attitude might be construed as a kind of “everything goes” morality of the variety that Wittgenstein dismissed above. That is, we might be tempted into thinking that Wittgenstein is denying the need for justification on philosophical grounds and that therefore we are authorized to act in any manner whatsoever without justification. Yet we are trying to escape the kind of morality that needs “authorization”, and such a position would itself be appealing to a type of justification.

It seems clear, then, that a positive ethical position stemming from the Investigations will be one that does not rely on philosophical justification at all because, in a sense, it justifies itself. We will not be able to arrive at such a position through argument. Instead, I propose that we must arrive there through a movement of passion. In the compilation of Wittgenstein’s remarks Culture and Value, we find a caricature of religious conversion that will serve as my model for the aesthetic-ethical reversal which can legitimately overcome the ethical question. Wittgenstein writes:

“It strikes me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it’s belief, it’s really a way of living, or a way of assessing life. It’s passionately seizing hold of this interpretation. Instruction in religious faith, therefore, would have to take the form of a portrayal, a description, of that system of reference, while at the same time being an appeal to conscience. And this combination would have to result in the pupil himself, of his own accord, passionately taking hold of the system of reference. It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of my rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it.” (CV, 64)

This caricature both contains all the necessary elements of the aesthetic reversal and provides an avenue through which they might legitimately occur. The process follows a familiar pattern: (i) the pupil realizes that he is living in aporia. The teacher helps him do this by showing him the “hopelessness of [his] situation”. Of course, it is in seeing that he does not know how to live that the pupil is brought to a place in which he can legitimately learn, just as the philosopher must realize that he does not know his way about in order to find it. (ii) the pupil is instructed in the means by which he might escape aporia. This resembles the therapist describing the features of language that a philosophical problem is couched within, except the religious instructor describes a system which is wholly new. What is most important, though, is that the instructor is appealing not to the pupil’s philosophical sensibilities, but to his conscience. Again, I take it that Wittgenstein purposefully uses a vague term – to demand that he give a metaphysical account of “conscience” would be misguided, as he intends to convey the immediate reality of the experience of encountering the doctrine. (iii) the pupil actively develops a passion for the doctrine, and seizes upon it. This is the moment of the aesthetic reversal. For the philosopher beholds an ethical position in light of its justification; our convert beholds his faith in light of his passion. He has thus changed his “way of living, [his] way of assessing life” not only in content, but also in form. And in evaluating his own position, the convert does not have to appeal to a philosophical vocabulary in order to justify his actions. Rather, he is legitimately able to say, “This is simply what I do” (PI 217). It is significant that the convert cannot be lead to his faith by the instructor, as this would align more with the philosophical aesthetic. In philosophy, the recipient of one’s argument ought to have no choice but to concede; in religious training, by contrast, the pupil ought to have total control of his choices. This insures that the pupil does not convert because of some justification provided by his teacher and therefore that he does not slip back into the philosophical mode.

From here we can consider whether the ethical question has completely disappeared for the convert. One the one hand, it is clear that the convert is no longer at a loss. He is committed to a system of reference and therefore knows his way about. On the other hand, the convert also has abandoned the philosophical aesthetic, having underwent an aesthetic reversal which brought him to an ethical view rooted in passion. And so the question “What ought I to do?” appears to have legitimately disappeared. If this Wittgensteinian therapy has been successful, the convert’s movement will bring him peace; Norman Malcom, an associate of Wittgenstein’s, illustrates how this might plausibly happen: “The function of the words, ‘It is God’s will’, when said religiously and seriously, in a time of trouble, is not to offer the final explanation, nor any explanation at all. Instead, they are an attempt to bring an end to the torment of asking ‘Why did it have to happen’ – an attempt to give the tormented one rest, to provide peace” (Malcolm, 86). In other words, the claim “It is God’s will” functions not as a justification but as a description of a situation, and it is by beholding a situation in this way that its philosophical potentialities disappear.


James Edwards, in his final analysis of Wittgenstein’s work, advances the claim that, “Wittgenstein’s later work… is itself intended as an ethical deed” (Edwards, 219). When we understand that Wittgenstein’s therapy is not justified by an appeal to philosophical reasoning but that it ‘is simply what he does’, as if religiously, then we can finally appreciate the gesture that the Philosophical Investigations communicates. The Investigations can present its therapy because its author came to his ethical position through therapy. The work thus represents a therapeutic aesthetic which justifies itself. As such, it need not be defended, at least philosophically, for presumably it is more a labor of passion than of duty. Moreover, we can view the nature of the “religious” conviction that Wittgenstein emulates as being a bit broader than we might have initially conceived. For there is nothing “religious,” in the common sense of the word, in writing a therapeutic book. There is, however, a certain religious attitude that Wittgenstein must have adopted as the driving force of the work. This attitude perhaps explains his comment to M.C. Drury: “I am not a religious man but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view” (Malcolm, 1). It is in presenting an account of therapy, without justification, that Wittgenstein embodies the ethical message of the work: that we must be completely free of the need for justification, relying solely upon our aesthetic orientation, in order to legitimately live.


Baker, Gordon P., and P. M. S. Hacker. Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Pub., 2004.
Edwards, James C. Ethics without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life. Tampa: Universityes of Florida, 1982.
Fogelin, Robert J. Wittgenstein. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1976.
Hacker, P.M.S. “Philosophy.” Wittgenstein: a Critical Reader. Ed. Hans-Johann Glock. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
Hallett, Garth. A Companion to Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.
Malcolm, Norman. Wittgenstein: a Religious Point of View? Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1994.
Peterman, James F. Philosophy as Therapy: an Interpretation and Defense of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophical Project. Albany: State University of New York, 1992.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and Joachin Schulte. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe and P.M.S. Hacker. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Ed. G. H. Von Wright and Heikki Nyman. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980.

Michael Putnam (’13) is a Philosophy Major at Whitman College

5 thoughts on “Therapy, Ethics, and Religiosity: The Necessity of Conversion Included in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Therapy

  1. Michael – An interesting and impressive read indeed! Your analysis is being well received by an equally impressive publication. Way to go and we look forward to reading more from you in the very near future.

  2. This was an incredibly well written and fascinating reading of the Investigations. I didn’t expect to learn anything from this and have come away inspired. I find your take on W’s therapeutic method as one of aporia leading to peace as reminiscent of what Pyrrhonian skepticism tries to accomplish, with suspension of judgment leading to ataraxia. I was half-expecting to see this connection made but perhaps you don’t see a connection here between these two methodologies.

  3. Tony,

    I do think there’s an element of Pyrrho in the Investigations! There may be some subtle differences, though, in that Pyrrho’s ataraxia is the result of a suspension of judgement and is therefore fundamentally epistemological, while Wittgenstein’s is the result of something else… he doesn’t formally suspend judgement, he stops “judging” in the epistemic sense altogether. I do think that the attitude is basically the same, though, especially in its “ethical” components.

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. I do think there’s an element of Pyrrho in the Investigations! There may be some subtle differences, though, in that Pyrrho’s ataraxia is the result of a suspension of judgement and is therefore fundamentally epistemological, while Wittgenstein’s is the result of something else… he doesn’t formally suspend judgement, he stops “judging” in the epistemic sense altogether. I do think that the attitude is basically the same, though, especially in its “ethical” components.

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