Wittgensteinian Fideism? By Kai Nielsen and D. Z. Phillips


Pp. 383 , SCM Press , 2003 , $55.00.

Kai Nielsen and D. Z. Phillips do not seem to like each other very much, nor do they seem to understand each other well. That, at least, is the distinct impress one comes away with after reading Wittgensteinian Fideism?, the results of a nearly forty-year long exchange between these two significant philosophers. On one level, that is not at all surprising, given that Nielsen has been one of the pre-eminent critics of religion in the West and Phillips, a strong philosophical supporter. On the other hand, one would think that after forty years, two reasonable people in dialogue could find the points at which they both can say, ‘I understand my opponent; I simply disagree with him.’ But that never happens. It seems that Nielsen and Phillips not only disagree on who is winning their particular game; they cannot seem to agree on what game is being played. Observing this misunderstanding as it plays out over nearly 400 pages makes for enlightening, but also frustrating, reading.

The main issue between Nielsen and Phillips boils down to whether or not religion as such can be critiqued on the basis of something outside of religion, or, to put it more broadly, whether or not there exist self-contained arenas of thought that are not beholden to anything outside themselves for their justification. Both of them approach this question from their reading of Wittgenstein, as interpreted and modified by Peter Winch and Rush Rhees. They both seem to agree that Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy cuts through many of the Gordian Knots with which many Western philosophers have tied themselves up, and that his ideas about rooting language in life and in practice are good ideas. But Nielsen seems to think that one dangerous implication of those ideas is that basic level ‘forms of life’ can be seen as immune to criticism from other basic level ‘forms of life’, and this is what he calls ‘Wittgensteinian Fideism’. Phillips, for his part, thinks that Nielsen is still too captured by the modern ideal of universal reason to see that reason cannot do all Nielsen hopes or pretends.

The book traces the extended and very learned dialogue between these two philosophers through a series of four separate but inter-related explorations. Three of these follow the same pattern, beginning with a previously published essay by Nielsen and following that with a reply, a counter-reply, and always finishing with the remarks and perspective of Phillips. The first exploration covers the initial forays into ‘Wittgensteinian Fideism’, and begins with a helpful orienting essay by Béla Szabados. The main lines are then laid out with Nielsen's seminal article from 1967 and Phillips' ‘reply’ from 1987, and then each adds a further new essay, clarifying their perspective in light of the critiques of the other. The main focus of that debate is whether or not Phillips and many of his co-Wittgensteinians are fideists, but equally interesting is the way that Nielsen and Phillips keep arguing that their opponent has not understood them properly. Here one sees that their contrasting intuitions are almost never acknowledged as such and that both writers – Nielsen, however, more than Phillips – still act as if a more carefully nuanced and clearer articulation of their position with show them to be ‘in the right’. The second section, the only one that both begins and ends with Phillips comments, continues this line by offering some ‘meta-reflections’ on what might be learned from reflecting on that earlier debate and gives further nuance to both authors' positions. However, it does not seem that this leads these two authors any closer to mutual understanding.

The third section on ‘Religion and Understanding’ is the broadest (and most interesting) of the four. Moving away from more narrow concerns about Wittgenstein (though he is always, of course, in the background), this section treats the broad question of the limits of human understanding and the relationship between what is and what is knowable. It is here that the contrary intuitions of both of these philosophers become most clear. Nielsen believes that ontology and epistemology are co-extensive and that it does not make any sense to talk about something being both real and beyond human understanding. Phillips, on the other hand, believes that the real exceeds the knowable and that human language has adapted tools to point beyond what it can actually say. This article also contains one of the most perspicacious articles in the entire collection, a semi-autobiographical essay by Nancy Bauer on the inter-relationship of religion, philosophy and our very human emotions.

The final section returns to Wittgenstein, and though it is called ‘Wittgenstein and Religion’, it is really a debate about the role of philosophy in the modern world. Phillips wants to argue, with Wittgenstein, that philosophy's role is primarily ‘contemplative’, sorting out the shape of problems, clearing away nonsense, and giving people a clearer picture of what is the case. Nielsen, for his part, rejects this ‘cooler’ attitude of philosophy and argues that it should be far more actively involved in changing what is the case. Though he denies it, Nielsen's view of philosophy comes across as strongly apologetic – which is ironic because it is this attitude that Nielsen constantly seems to deplore in Phillips. In truth, both are apologetic, but they are apologists for two very different (though both eminently respectable) philosophical approaches. The problem is that neither really leave open the possibility that what the other is doing is legitimate, though Phillips comes nearer this mark than does Nielsen.

Reading the wranglings of Nielsen and Phillips is instructive, and no one who cares about the implications of Wittgenstein for religion should pass this volume up. Theologians and philosophers engaged in what is known as ‘post-liberalism’ (either arguing for its approach or against it) will also find here an excellent overview of the significant philosophical issues that such an approach raises. To an innocent bystander, the book will also provide an opportunity to probe one's own intuitions on the matters of faith, knowledge and reason, as one discerns which philosopher one is closest to.

The book, however, can become tedious at times as the same ground is ploughed over and over again with little movement of each side toward the other. The fact that neither philosopher seems to recognize that they might be fighting over irreconcilable intuitions means they take their points of disagreement too personally, and a few times the books almost descends to a scholarly version of name-calling. All this leaves the reader with the impression that a philosophical dialogue conducted via papers may never bring about a true resolution to the deep questions it raises. That may be because we are dealing here with contrary intuitions, and no amount of arguing can establish one over the other. It may be because both of these philosophers represent dead-end paths, and the dialogue thus illustrates what one is left with when one surrenders the correspondence value of language in favour of either Wittgensteinian (Phillips) or Rortyan (Nielsen) coherentism. Or maybe the exchange shows that philosophy conducted merely in the realm of ideas cannot do everything that philosophy wishes to do. Human beings are not merely creatures of ideas, and eventually ideas can lead us only so far. One wonders how this dialogue might have been different if instead of presenting papers about one another, Nielsen and Phillips would have just ‘hung out’ for a couple of weeks, drinking coffee and discussing their ideas and then presented a series of joint papers on topics of common interest. Now that would have been a book I would have found more interesting to read.