Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Everyday Speech and Revelatory Speech in Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Everyday Speech and Revelatory Speech in Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein

Article excerpt

"You can't hear God speaking to someone else, you can hear him only if you are the addressee."-That is a grammatical remark.


In May 2005 thousands of people, from Egypt to Indonesia, participated in protests against the USA, sparked by a report in Newsweek-later retracted-that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the toilet. In several places, President Bush was burned in effigy, along with American flags and copies of the American constitution. In Jalalabad, Afghanistan, protests turned to riots, leaving several dead and many wounded. According to Michael Isikoff, one of the journalists responsible for the report, "Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did."2

What did these journalists and Pentagon officials fail to understand? Why are so many people so outraged by the treatment of a book? What stake do religious believers have in what they regard as divine revelation? How might Islam, Christianity and Judaism differ in this respect? How might members of each community differ among themselves in their views of revelation? Are these questions on which philosophy can shed any light?

If one considers contemporary philosophy of religion-as represented by university classes, textbooks and academic journals-then any such hope is likely to be dashed. Much of the discipline exhibits a concernunderstandably defensive in what we are told is a secular age-with epistemological matters such as the justification or, at least, the rationality of religious belief. There is also discussion of ontological issues, such as the consistency of divine benevolence and omnipotence with the existence of evil. But none of this is of much help in the face of the so-called Newsweek riots. What we want in the first place is not to assess what is at stake in the Koran for some Moslems-not to judge its rationality or consistency-but to understand what is at stake. Perhaps this is a question for some other discipline-say, for religious studies. Yet it nevertheless raises further questions that are clearly philosophical: Under what conditions are religious beliefs intelligible? Can religious beliefs be understood by those who do not share them? Can they be rational if they are intelligible only to those who share them?

These are questions addressed by Wittgenstein in his Lectures on Religious Belief. But, although he said that he saw every problem "from a religious point of view,"3 these student notes are the main source for Wittgenstein's thinking on religion, and that is not much to go on.4

It has recently been suggested that there are striking affinities between Wittgenstein, arguably the most important thinker of the twentieth century in the tradition of analytic philosophy, and Franz Rosenzweig, arguably the most important thinker of the twentieth century in the tradition of Jewish philosophy.51 will argue here that there are indeed such affinities, although there are also important differences. In light of both the affinities and differences, I suggest that Rosenzweig can help us to develop a philosophical approach to religious belief that is animated by a spirit very like Wittgenstein's. Moreover, the juxtaposition promises especially to shed light on the concept of revelation, and on the role this concept can play in the lives of both believers and nonbelievers.


It is no accident that the affinity between Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein was first noted by Hilary Putnam in an introduction to Rosenzweig's Understanding the Sick and the Healthy. For it is here above all that Rosenzweig develops his critical and explicitly therapeutic approach to the philosophical tradition, and it is in this approach that the affinity with Wittgenstein is the clearest.

However, to say that Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein are critical of the philosophical tradition, that they practice a form of therapy, and even that this therapy centrally involves the everyday or the ordinary, would be far too imprecise, and would fail to bring out the specific affinity-I want to say, the affinity of spirit-that distinguishes both of them from others who are critical of the philosophical tradition in somewhat similar fashions. …

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