fancy mug logo

Joel Sumner Smith

Product Manager @Gatsby focused on cloud native platform.
Analogical thinker in an analytical world.


Wittgenstein on the limitations of philosophy

Though I understand just a portion of the whole book, I found the following passage quite enlightening in many respects. Not least of all, I find its implications for an honest theology to be of huge importance:

Imagine we had to arrange the books of a library. When we begin the books lie higgledy-piggledy on the floor. Now there would be ‘many ways of sorting them and putting them in their places. One would be to take the books one by one and put each on the shelf in its right place. On the other hand we might take up several books from the floor and put them in a row on a shelf, merely in order to indicate that these books ought to go together in this order. In the course of arranging the library this whole row of books will have to change its place. But it would be wrong to say that therefore putting them together on a shelf was no step towards the final result. In this case, in fact, it is pretty obvious that having put together books which belong together was a definite achievement, even though the whole row of them had to be shifted. But some of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn’t know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved. — The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. E.g., to see that when we have put two books together in their right order we have not thereby put them in their final places.
(The Blue Book pp. 44,45)
What I meant by this passage’s import for an honest theology, is that like the philosopher finds himself within the world only able to say certain things about it because he is himself a thing within that world (another book in the library,) so the theologian must only say certain things for the scriptures are themselves things (we are in a sense interpreters of  the singularly divine philosophers) and so we may some with certainty and other without such confidence. It reminds me very much of a comment made by N.T. Wright:
To affirm “the authority of Scripture” is precisely not to say, “We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.” It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvanated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.
(The Last Word p.91)
We, like the philosopher in the library, are arranging the facts and texts of theology which have been given to us. At times the position in which we have set things may indeed be final, yet one must be careful to not become too attached to the way we have of putting things.
The scrutiny of the grammar of a word [perhaps even the divine Word?] weakens the position of certain fixed standards of our expression which had prevented us from seeing facts with unbiased eyes. Our investigation tried to remove this bias, which forces us to think that the facts must conform to certain pictures embedded in our language [insert here “our theology”].
(Blue Book p. 43 [brackets mine])
And yet, we must live based upon several suppositions: (1) there is a definite and final order to the books within the library [though that finality is not attainable within human finitude] and (2) we must act upon our limited information as if our knowledge was somewhat final. Not all knowledge can be perfectly distilled. At times one must admit that human knowledge and its access to the divine are partial at best, like the poet of Paradise Lost concludes:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
(Bk. XII lines 646-9)
© 2021, Joel Sumner Smith