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Wittgenstein on Understanding Religious Beliefs

Some Remarks against Incommensurability and Scepticism

Yuliya Fadeeva
From the journal Wittgenstein-Studien

Abstract

Wittgenstein’s writings on religious and magical beliefs, especially the “Lectures on Religious Belief” and “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough” are taken to imply semantic incommensurability and inaccessibility by the Wittgensteinian Fideism and, in part, the expressivist interpretation. According to these interpretations, religious and non-religious discourses are self-contained, closed, and not intertranslatable. Wittgenstein is taken to deny mutual understanding between believers and non-believers with respect to religious and magical discourse. I argue against such interpretations and support readings by Kusch, Schroeder, and Tripodi that are optimistic of the possibility of mutual understanding. Nevertheless, there is a danger of scepticism for such optimistic readings when they refer to a special attitude that is needed to understand religious belief and speech. I offer a reply to this problem and suggest to see Wittgenstein’s stance on understanding religious discourse in a greater proximity to his general views about language in his later writings. Then, however, any fideist view of the religious (and magical) form of life as self-contained and isolated from the non-religious has to be repudiated.

I thank the anonymous referee and Stefan Reining for helpful comments on an earlier version of the paper.

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