Transcendent Meaning, Platonism, and Wittgenstein

We are grateful for this essay from guest contributor S. Chase McCumber (a graduate student in the University of Oklahoma Department of Philosophy).


I recently had the opportunity to read a selected transcription of a talk given by Fr. Andrew Louth last year titled ‘The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology’ (2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture at King’s College Chapel, delivered remotely on January 17, 2021). I have trained in analytic philosophy (a pity with which I am slowly coming to grips) and have often struggled to understand the Platonic vision. What I have found on offer in the work of many of my favorite religious thinkers is quite obviously different from the caricature taught to me. Here too, I must admit that much of what Fr. Louth says in his talk continues to elude my understanding. However, a few of his remarks have inspired a possible connection with the primary target of my scholarship: Ludwig Wittgenstein. This may be the beginning of a parting of the clouds.

Two remarks concerning Plotinus caught my eye. First:

Plotinus, as we shall see, takes a step beyond Plato but does not take away the sense of transcendence as beyond meaning yet the source of meaning. In this, Plotinus finds a sense of something that would make possible the continuing fruitfulness of meditation on Plato in the Christian tradition that indeed lent the Christian vision the intellectual coherence it needed to articulate its own vision of reality, a vision opened up by revelation, though because it is the revelation of God—ineffable, incomprehensible—it is a revelation that remains a mystery unknown and unknowable.

And second:

…Now is born that philosophic aesthetic of the grand style to which even Plotinus will be able to make no significant alteration and which will lay down the pattern for all Western forms of humanism, of antiquity, the middle ages, and right into modern times—an aesthetic which seeks to draw out the glory of God which breaks in upon the human scene in the direction of the human of what for the moment is the same cosmic sublime.

…Though for Balthasar it is Plotinus who sees what the final implications of Plato’s intuition really amount to. He starts a paragraph like this: “Plotinus stands in awe and wonder before the glory of the cosmos.” Here I suggest, Balthasar reaches for his touch stone for understanding of Platonism, in this case that of Plotinus. The cosmos—manifestly a vast ensouled organism in which individual souls, rational and irrational, have their share—throughout this glorious world radiates the presence of an eternal and intelligent spirit in which noesis and noema, the action of thought and the object of thought are one. …And in the ultimate ground of this spirit, there is an unutterable generative mystery at work which in all the splendor of the cosmos simultaneously reveals and hides itself, present everywhere and yet unapproachable.

I’m confident that a great many interpreters would see in both of these remarks precisely the kind of needless metaphysical abstraction Wittgenstein was at great pains to teach us to avoid. The first remark especially would seem at rather drastic odds with Wittgenstein’s various reflections on meaning, but in what follows I will attempt to sketch a possible way of understanding these descriptions of transcendence and meaning within a Wittgensteinian idiom. I should emphasize again that I’m speaking out of ignorance and my goal here is to ascertain whether what I describe is harmonious with any part of what Fr. Louth and other thinkers, namely David Bentley Hart, mean to be getting at when they talk about Platonism.

Wittgenstein, in both the small amount of work that he intended to be published and his lectures, notebooks, records of conversations, repeatedly asks us to consider our words and concepts in relationship to prelinguistic bodily determined inclinations, feelings, desires, sensations, etc. This remark is a paradigmatic and representative example (Investigations, 244):

How do words refer to sensations?—There doesn’t seem to be any problem here; don’t we talk about sensations every day, and give them names? But how is the connexion between the name and the thing named set up? This question is the same as: how does a human being learn the meaning of the names of sensations?—of the word “pain” for example. Here is one possibility: words are connected with the primitive, the natural, expressions of the sensation and used in their place. A child has hurt himself and he cries; and then adults talk to him and teach him exclamations and, later, sentences. They teach the child new pain-behaviour.

“So you are saying that the word ‘pain’ really means crying?” —On the contrary: the verbal expression of pain replaces crying and does not describe it.

And Fergus Kerr summarizes these various calls to attention well:

Time and again, Wittgenstein reminds his students of the great variety of primitive, prelinguistic natural reactions from which words, and so language, sprout – the words that give birth to the immense range of the concepts available to us and opening up the world to us, including of course the psychological concepts. …thinking, feeling, desiring, intending and the like are essentially practical – practices, as we may say, grounded in the kind of lives that we live, and inconceivable then apart from our everyday interaction with other people. Psychological concepts are interwoven with the activities that are characteristic of the creatures we are in the environment that we inhabit. This is why they are so complex, so “ragged,” as he will later say, so indefinable – and certainly not comprehensible or legitimated in the technical jargon of some would-be scientific or metaphysical scheme. The way to show this, so Wittgenstein believes, is to remind ourselves of the manifold ways in which words such as “thinking,” “feeling,” “intending,” and so on are used all the time in ordinary everyday circumstances. (Kerr, Work On Oneself, 14-15)

Wittgenstein’s conception of language begins with the body. We are born with prelinguistic, bodily determined feelings, desires, inclinations, etc. that are the foundation of our linguistic utterances. We are born crying out from the shock and discomfort of being pushed from one world into another. We cry in our hunger, thirst, pain, fear, loneliness. We giggle and smile in surprise and nascent delight. And then, with surprising and miraculous speed, we grow the capacity to replace our inchoate cries and reactions with words and phrases and concepts. We gain the ability to see ourselves as ourselves and so come to name and know even more of the gifts of the body. And, after this linguistic baptism, we realize that right alongside our thirst and hunger is the desire to love and be loved, to worship, and to create. We recognize too that we desire things which seem beyond the possibility of our small lives. We remember that, in some sense, the shock of entering this world does not wear off but expands and flowers into the deep conviction that something isn’t quite right here. These are what Wittgenstein calls ‘religious feelings’ and it is out of these that religions are grown. He says:

All religions are wonderful, even those of the most primitive tribes. The ways in which people express their religious feelings differ enormously. (In conversation with Maurice O’Connor Drury)

It is in exercising our creativity—what we might call participating in that divine generative mystery—in response to our bodily-given religious feelings that allows us to have religious beliefs at all. What I’d like to suggest is that this view of the development of language marries a kind of arbitrariness with a definite set of determinative factors. That is, human beings (not to mention all the other creatures experiencing similar inclinations, here’s looking at you, Roland Hart!) are left to construct our linguistic, religious, intellectual, social, etc. lives, in some sense, accidentally and creatively, but we are governed by our very createdness, by the God-given features of our body.

So, perhaps we can say the sense of transcendence, as beyond meaning yet the source of meaning, married to the idea of standing in awe and wonder before creation is something like this: The generative mystery of the divine is unknowable within time or creation because it is, in some sense, the very form of creation. The empirical evidence, so to speak, can view our linguistic and religious development and existence as merely accidental, simply the way things are. But via revelation and, importantly, a natural wonder at creation, possibly with a special emphasis on ourselves as purposively (for how else could we be) created, we can come to see, in a way, the generative mystery, that creation “radiates the presence of an eternal and intelligent spirit.” Meaning comes from the transcendent above via mysterious revelation, but also from the created below via wonder and reflection on creation and our created selves: “present everywhere and yet unapproachable.” Kerr, summarizing Wittgenstein, seems to suggest this by eschewing “metaphysical comprehensibility” and asking us to focus on, quite literally, our creatureliness.

While I’m confident I’ve gotten Wittgenstein’s view close to right, my question is: Have I done any justice at all to Plato, Plotinus, and Fr. Andrew Louth?

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