Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Wittgenstein and Religious Reference

Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value:

"It strikes me that religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it's about belief, it's really about a way of living, or a way of assessing life."(CV 64e)

So, what is a 'system of reference'? Let's see, I suppose words are supposed to refer to things and if you have a system of those you have locutions, games, patterns of speech. So, the word God, while not referring to something empirical, has its use in the center of a religious system of reference that has empirical consequences. These consequences involve how one spends their time, their money, how one evaluates life situations, talks themselves into various emotional states, copes with life's stresses, thinks about the future, in many cases provides a community. A religious system of reference can accomplish all of these things.

He further says in 64e:

"It would be as though someone were first to let me see the hopelessness of my situation and then show me the means of rescue until, of my own accord, or not at any rate led to it by my instructor, I ran to it and grasped it."

The system of reference presents as a solution to hopelessness the adoption of a religious system of reference. For a system of reference to be able to do this it has to present hope and ways of responding within oneself and to others that reinforce the reference system, and thus the hope, even in the face of opposition, or, especially in the face of opposition. A system of reference is thus not merely an abstract set of game, but very practical, real-world games, where hope is at stake.

When people 'lose their religion', or regain and then lose it again, they have a rather difficult relation to the hope these reference systems, and the ways of life they create and embody, proffer. If one has felt the hope, had it taken away, regained it, and then lost it again, is there a 'diminishing return' in trying to regain it again? A loss of  emotional credibility, perhaps.

This approach to religion suggests the possibility of new systems of reference, without the dogmatic aspects of religion, that can play a similar role in restoring hope to the hopeless to religion. For many of us the widely available 'systems of reference' do no work. Thus we have to devise our own in the meantime. Is such a thing possible without a community? Or is it impossible for a solitary individual to do this?

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