On Worldview 3 (Wittgenstein/Pragmatism)

Wittgenstein, Weltanschauung, Weltbild, and Wherefore Pragmatism

There is much to say about what Danièle Moyal-Sharrock calls Wittgenstein’s “logical pragmatism” in relation to missional theology (Moyal-Sharrock).  I will mention only some starting points for the present discussion of worldview.  Though Wittgenstein was cautious about Weltanschauung (worldview), the concept of Weltbild (world picture) was critical for his philosophy.  Naugle explains succinctly:

Wittgenstein is apparently content to label his philosophical outlook a Weltbild or world picture, but to call it a Weltanschauung is unacceptable. The reason for this, in Judith Genova’s opinion, is that for Wittgenstein “a Weltanschauung forgets its status as a way of seeing and parades itself as the way of seeing. It takes itself too seriously, as the ultimate explanation and foundation of our convictions. In contrast, the concept of Weltbild completely avoids the knowledge game.” This is the very game that Wittgenstein sought to avoid. He recognized that his own philosophy could be interpreted as another system of thought that seeks to get the world right. (Naugle, locs. 2045-2048)

The point for the present discussion is that Wittgenstein’s critique of worldview was contextual and particular.  It was contextual in that he rejected some popular early twentieth century ideas of worldview; if he were alive today, distance from “worldview” for this reason is unlikely, not least because his own philosophy has helped evolve the concept.  It was particular because he was at pains to achieve a kind of meta-description of philosophies, which were themselves articulations of worldviews in that early sense of the word.  Whereas worldviews were overtly explanatory, his aim was to be merely descriptive, specifically describing how those explanatory systems actually work in human thought and language.  Yet, Naugle is right to identify Wittgenstein’s work as deeply resonant with current conceptualizations of worldview.  Sire concludes, “world picture as he uses the term seems synonymous with worldview” (though Sire rejects Wittgenstein’s views because Sire’s ontological priority demands the explanatory foundationalism that Wittgenstein finds irrelevant to his descriptive project) (Sire, 30).  Even within Renata Badii and Enrica Fabbri’s recent thesis that Weltbild and Weltanschauung, “although they belong to the same family, cannot be nevertheless superimposed one on the other and need to be reconstructed in their singularity as well as in their reciprocal connections” (Baddi and Fabbri, 5), the distinction is possible only by virtue of the definition of worldview that one adopts.  Naugle’s definition is the case in point:

Consider for example the definition of Weltanschauung-worldview proposed by Naugle: “I will also propose that a worldview as a semiotic structure consists primarily of a network of narrative signs that offers an interpretation of reality and establishes an overarching framework for life”. As we shall see, the same function can be attributed to a Weltbild, so one can question what the difference between the two concepts actually is. (Baddi and Fabbri, 5, fn. 4)

They go on to say:

The relevance of Weltbilder for practical conduct and their pragmatic function are underestimated by the semantic approach used by Naugle in his definition of worldview: “A worldview as a semiotic system of world-interpreting stories also provides a foundation or governing platform upon or by which people think, interpret, and know”. In our opinion, this definition should be integrated with a direct reference to action. (Baddi and Fabbri, 9, fn. 8)

I fully agree, but this is a weakness present in Naugle’s definition at the beginning of chapter ten, though not in the second iteration at the end of chapter ten, which I quoted earlier: “a semiotic system of narrative signs that creates the definitive symbolic universe which is responsible in the main for the shape of a variety of life-determining, human practices” (Naugle, locs. 4384-4386).  Moreover, it is not present in either Hiebert or Sire, much less in Olthuis, who directly integrated Wittgenstein’s Weltbild.  Given that Naugle’s second articulation is also connected with Wittgensteinian “channels,” the critique is even less substantial.

It is to these channels and their connection to pragmatism that I now turn.  As a preliminary matter, is necessary within a theological context that is accustomed to a derogatory usage of “pragmatism” to clarify what is at stake here.  Pragmatism, in philosophical usage, should not be confused with utilitarianism (the end justifies the means).  Nor should it be reduced to an epistemic criterion that is only interested in what is functional.  Wittgenstein himself denied being a pragmatist, explaining, “For I am not saying that a proposition is true if it is useful” (RPP 266).  But it is despite this understanding of pragmatism that Wittgenstein has been shown to have deep affinities with pragmatism.  Hilary Putnam says that when Wittgenstein’s ideas sound like pragmatism, “it is not the mythical pragmatism (which the real pragmatists all scorned) which says ‘It’s true (for you) if it is good for you'” (Putnam, 51).

Specifically, the connection to William James is important, because it is precisely in the metaphor of “stream” and “channel” that Wittgenstein is in conversation with him (Boncompagni, 2012a, 36–50).  That is, just at the articulation of his conception of Weltbild, which is a vital insight for our understanding of worldview, a pragmatic philosophical element is at work.  By exploring this connection, I think it is evident that worldview should be pragmatically conceived.

Wittgenstein’s description of language results in a “pragmatic philosophical anthropology” (Pihlström, 16).  This is, in my view, the ground on which the anthropological and philosophical notions of worldview meet, and pragmatism is the bond that unites them.  I suggest that Wittgenstein’s logical pragmatism offers two foundational insights for conceptualizing worldview.  One, worldviews are epistemically neutral.  Two, worldviews are formed and transformed—and by implication, judged—on a pragmatic basis.  The key pericopes from On Certainty are as follows:

94. But I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.

95. The propositions describing this world-picture might be part of a kind of mythology. And  their role is like that of rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules.

96. It might be imagined that some propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were hardened and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions as were not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with time, in that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became fluid.

97. The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift. But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other.

98. But if someone were to say “So logic too is an empirical science” he would be wrong. Yet this is right: the same proposition may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.

99. And the bank of that river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited.


341. That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.

342. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted.

343. But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption.  If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.

344. My life consists in my being content to accept many things.

Worldviews do not function as truth claims: they are epistemically neutral, neither true nor false in the epistemic sense.  Moreover, worldviews cannot be justified; they are the assumptions that make the language game of justification possible.  Anna Boncompagni identifies the function of Weltbild as “common sense,” calling to mind a significant concern of both Churches of Christ and evangelical theology: Common Sense Realism.  Wittgenstein identifies the function of Weltbild or common sense in human language without proposing any epistemic thesis.  A Weltbild is common sense because of the way it works vis-à-vis the language game.  It is not a self-evident proof of our direct access to what is real; neither is this neutrality to be mistaken for skepticism.  In fact, it demonstrates the “impotence” of skepticism:

Our relation to common sense propositions lying in the background of our picture of the world, is not epistemic, it is practical: our certainties are in actions, not in words; they are embedded, enacted, to use two very fashionable words for today’s philosophical debate. And it is precisely this practical character that enables them to defuse the skeptical objection: the skeptic’s doubt is an epistemic doubt, it deals with knowledge, not with this instinctive and thoughtless sureness. (Boncompagni, 2012b, 48)

Or as Moyal-Sharrock puts it:

Our objective certainty is not a coming-to-see type of certainty; it is not of the order of knowing, justification, reason or reflection, and is therefore immune to mistake, doubt, or falsification—for where no epistemic route was followed, no epistemic fault is possible. It is a nonpropositional, ungrounded certainty which manifests itself ineffably in what we say and do. To be certain, here, means to be unwaveringly and yet thoughtlessly poised  on something which enables us to think, speak or act meaningfully. That something is  grammar. Our basic  certainties are grammatical rules, manifesting themselves as a flawless know-how. The rules can be articulated into sentences, as exemplified above, but such articulation is effected only for heuristic purposes, such as philosophical discussion or grammatical instruction. Once verbalised, however, these rules of grammar misleadingly  look like empirical propositions—conclusions that we come to from experience. This  resemblance has confused philosophers, and disconcerts Wittgenstein himself throughout On Certainty.  And yet, he does come to the realisation that we have, yet again, been mystified by the appearance of language: “I am inclined to believe that not everything that has the form of an empirical proposition is one” (OC 308). It is On Certainty‘s greatest contribution to philosophy to have revealed the nonpropositional, nonempirical, nonepistemic nature of our basic certainties. Uncovering their grammatical status moves us to realise that our mistaking what are in fact rules of grammar for falsifiable propositions constitutes one of the greatest category mistakes of philosophy: that responsible for the apparent indefeasibility of philosophical scepticism. (Moyal-Sharrock, 4)

Thus Wittgenstein “deflates” the epistemic-ontological question:

Wittgenstein, true to his strategy of not offering “theses”, tries to convince us that there is no interesting thesis in this area [the Kantian assertion “we can’t describe the world as it is in itself”]. For Wittgenstein, the negation of a pseudo-proposition is a pseudo-proposition; the negation of  nonsense is nonsense. If we are persuaded that it is unintelligible to say “We sometimes succeed in describing reality as it is in itself”, then we should realize that it is equally unintelligible  to say “We never succeed in describing reality as it is in itself”, and even more unintelligible (more, because it introduces the peculiar philosophical “can’t”) to say “We can’t describe reality as it is in itself”. . . . We can learn and change and invent languages, and in them we can state truths; that is describing reality. If you say, “Yes, but it is not describing reality as it is in itself “, you are saying nothing. (Putnam, 39–40)

To recognize the relevance of these conclusions for the conception of worldview, it is necessary to remember the earlier discussion of epistemology as a component of worldview.  The realist epistemology at work in commonsense action is a hinge or channel, a rule of human life that forms part of one’s worldview, not a justified theory of knowledge.  Even after a philosopher articulates an epistemology propositionally in order to justify it, the epistemology remains a hinge assumption, the certainty of which can only be demonstrated by action.  The epistemologist has articulated the grammar by which true statements are made, but it remains functionally a grammatical rule despite its propositional form.  In effect, a realist epistemologist may say “I have succeeded in describing the reality of human knowledge.”  The sense of this description might be, for example, that a person does not walk into traffic because the nature of his relationship to reality is direct, commonsense perception.  The explanation of the person’s epistemic relationship to traffic, though, would be for Wittgenstein a statement of nonsense:

Wittgenstein says of  the sentence: ‘There are physical objects’ that it is ‘nonsense’. This is meant to indicate that  all hinges are nonsense. Indeed, hinges have no sense; they  enable sense. Nonsense is not a derogatory term for Wittgenstein; it is a technical term applied to strings of words that stand outside the bounds of sense. And strings of words can stand outside the bounds of sense either because (1) they violate sense, such as the negations of grammatical rules (e.g. ‘Red is lighter than pink’), or in that (2) they  enable sense, such as grammatical rules themselves (e.g. ‘Red is darker than pink’). Grammatical rules stand  outside our language-games; they make the game possible. They do not, as such,  bear saying within the  stream of the language-game but only in heuristic situations: that is, in situations where rules of grammar are transmitted (through drill or training) to a child, a disturbed adult or a foreign speaker; or in philosophical discussion. To articulate grammatical rules  within the stream of the language-game—that is, in the flow of ordinary discourse—is to articulate bounds of sense as if they were descriptions or informative statements. If I were to say to the cloakroom attendant as I hand him my token: ‘This is a token’, he would look at me  puzzled, nonplussed. Am I joking or slightly deranged? That ‘This is a token’ is not information for him, so why am I saying it? Nothing justifies my saying it. The information he requires in order to retrieve my coat is not that this is a token, but what the number on the token is. That this is a token is the ineffable hinge upon which his looking for the number on the token revolves. Our shared certainty that ‘this is a token’ can only  show itself in our normal transaction with the token; it cannot qua certainty be meaningfully said. To say a hinge in an ordinary context is to suggest that it does not go without saying; that it needs support, grounding, context. (Moyal-Sharrock, 6)

Like “red is darker than pink,” the next levels of analysis, such as why red appears darker than pink, or how we perceive the color, or whether we all really perceive the color as it is are also grammatical in nature and no less nonsensical: “Sceptical doubt as to whether the color we all call ‘red’ is red is incoherent” (Putnam, 35).  So with my example.  One kind of nonsense statement would be, “Those are moving cars.”  Another kind would be, “I know those moving cars will run over me because my perception of them corresponds to the laws of physics.”  The person walks into traffic, or he doesn’t.  If he doesn’t, the epistemic hinge on which his action turns certifies itself; his practical assumption is realism.  But there can be no propositional justification (nor, of course, propositional disproval) of realism as the “reality [of human knowing] as it is in itself.”

The upshot is that all epistemologies are hinges in the Weltbild—assumptions in the worldview.  They are one of the places where Wittgenstein would say, “If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do'” (PI 217).  Of this realization, Olthuis says:

Finally here comes an end to our reasoning and we answer such end questions in terms of the affirmation and surrender of faith rather than in proof or demonstration.

It is not that such ultimate answers lack cognitive content. But on the ultimate level of faith, reason is impotent to determine what is true. At that level all the options are ultimates and there is no further standard or norm by which they can be assessed. There is no logical move that we can make to achieve an ultimate premise beyond doubt. (Olthuis, 5)

When it comes to theology, this understanding of worldview must apply to the ideas of revelation and inspiration as well, not to mention Common Sense Realism as it has been applied to the Bible in Restoration and evangelical interpretation.  Description of the inspiration of Scripture as epistemology is a grammatical claim, not to be mistaken for a truth claim because of its propositional form.  Of course it can be and often is made as a truth claim, but as such it is of the most circular order of claims: the church “knows” Scripture is inspired because Scripture claims to be inspired; the validity of the claim depends upon the assumption that Scripture is a way of knowing, which it is because of its inspired nature.  Even if we marshal a defense to “justify” belief in inspiration, making recourse to church tradition, adding an argument from historical reliability that brings us convincingly back to the words of the apostles or even the ipsissima vox of Jesus, and bolstering it with a reasonable apology for the resurrection of Jesus, our defense is not proof.  We have no way to demonstrate inspiration as a process or dynamic at work in Scripture.  Those (like myself) who employ it as an epistemology may have reasons for doing so but must ultimately trust it as a hinge, a fixed place on which other biblical theological truth claims turn.

Despite possible first appearances, this does not leave us in a state of absolute relativism.  Sire is wrong about the ontological priority, not because the being of God is not really first, but because his truth claim that ontology is first turns on a biblical epistemological hinge for which he can give no proof.  Sire himself is the case in point: he perceives ontology to come first because, within the functioning of his worldview, epistemology and hermeneutics actually come first.  Thus, a biblical worldview sees God’s being to have priority, but as worldview it only permits this realization to flow through  through epistemological-hermeneutical channels.  Yet, the relativism that Sire hopes ontological priority will defeat is not actually the consequence of this description of worldview:

Not only are there better or worse performances within a language game, but it is quite clear that Wittgenstein thinks that there are better and worse language games. . . .

Wittgenstein  inherits and extends what  I above called Kant ‘s pluralism; that is the idea that  no one language game deserves the exclusive right  to be called ” true”,  or  “rational”, or “our  first-class conceptual system”, or the system that “limns the ultimate nature of reality”, or anything  like that. Wittgenstein, so to speak, splits the difference between Rorty and Quine;  that  is, he agrees with Rorty, against Quine,  that  one cannot  say that scientific language games are the only language games in which we say or write truths, or in which we describe reality; but, on the other hand, he agrees with Quine as against Rorty that language games can be criticized (or “combatted”);  that there are better and worse language games. (Putnam, 37–38)

The evaluation of a language game (which, akin to culture, includes the Weltbild or worldview and the way of life it engenders) is bound up with the complex evaluative function of worldview, but Wittgenstein’s descriptive analysis asserts that fundamentally the plasticity of the bedrock, the formation or destruction of a hinge, is pragmatically determined:

The pragmatists—and, perhaps analogously, Wittgenstein—can be seen as offering us a new kind of metaphysics, one based not on the futile attempt to climb above our forms of life into a God’s-Eye View but on human practices and especially our practice-embedded ethical and more generally evaluative standpoints and considerations. (Pihlström, 16)

Rather than lay claim to a God’s-eye-view, for example, by asserting that the “biblical worldview” is true because God revealed it—a claim that cannot be proven by rational argumentation—the evaluation of the biblical worldview alongside another worldview must be an embodied evaluation:

The Weltbild concerns our “matter-of-course foundation” (which is deeper than a scientific foundation), and we learn it or swallow it when we are children, in our everyday activities and in our parents teachings and examples. We do not explicitly learn its contents and rules: we learn by doing, we are thought[sic] judgments and their connections with other judgments, and we begin following rules without being aware of following rules, to hold beliefs and certainties without being aware of possessing them. The Weltbild becomes natural, as natural as body movements or, on the other hand, linguistic behavior. This is the reason why to describe an encounter between two different world-pictures Wittgenstein does not use the words of rational argumentation, but those of persuasion, conversion, even combativity: when the bottom of beliefs is reached, no argumentative strategy is possible anymore, and to convince another person of our Weltbild, or conversely to change our own picture, means to change the way he or we see the world, to change perspective, ultimately to change the form of life (hence the ethical dimension of Wittgenstein’s thought on Weltbild and forms of life). (Boncompagni, 2012b, 47)

Consider also Putnam’s insight:

In the “Lectures on Religious Belief”, Wittgenstein makes it clear that he, standing outside religious language (or affecting to), cannot  say that religious  language  is cognitive or  non-cognitive; all he can say is that, from the “outsiders’ ” perspective,  the religious man is  “using a picture”.  But  he adds that in saying this he is not saying that the religious man is only using a picture, or only “expressing an  attitude”.  I take Wittgenstein  to be saying here that  (1) the possibilities  of  “external” understanding of a deeply different form of  life are extremely  limited; and (2) that religious claims are not simply badly formulated “empirical” claims.  Yet they are not rejected by Wittgenstein out of hand, as are metaphysical claims. So what  is going on?

It is here that I detect a moral as well as a philosophical purpose in Wittgenstein’s writing. Wittgenstein is urging a certain kind of empathetic understanding.  (As he explicitly does in  his  “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough“.) Wittgenstein thinks that secular Europeans see all other forms of life as “pre-scientific” or “unscientific” and that this is a vulgar refusal to appreciate  difference. The reason I think that these concerns of Wittgenstein go to the heart of his philosophy is this: To me the remarks near the end of On Certainty about our relationship to other  forms of life, as well as the Lectures on Religious Belief  and the remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough just mentioned, are a declaration that the language philosopher cannot qua philosopher tell us whether the putative “statements” made in a form of  life very different than the scientific are statements or not; I can say “I  would never talk like that”, or, on the contrary, I can make a form of life my own.  But this is not something that philosophy can decide for me. (On this interpretation, Wittgenstein’s rejection of metaphysics is a moral rejection: metaphysical  pictures are bad for us, in Wittgenstein’s view.) The question, the one we are faced with over and over again, is whether a form of life has practical or spiritual value. But  the value of a form of  life is not,  in general, something one can express  in the language games of  those who are unable to share its evaluative interests. (Putnam, 49–51)

Finally, Russell Goodman puts it this way:

On Certainty works within the framework of the Philosophical Investigations view that language takes the form of language games, which are complicated forms of living—including building, praying, telling jokes, reporting, and playing games (PI, 23). Within each practice, certain beliefs stand fast; and some beliefs stand fast for many, some perhaps for all, of our practices. It is not that these beliefs are “a priori true,” seen in a flash of insight into the nature of things, or a consequence of some definition we decide to adopt; they are off our routes of inquiry or investigation. Wittgenstein’s stress on action in making this point is especially pronounced at section 204 of On Certainty: “Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.” “Our acting” forms the background against which our language-games take shape. Our linguistic practices “show” the background against which they appear. But the background shows things on which these linguistic practices depend: “My life shows that I know, am certain, etc.” (OC, 7). In Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, as in this quotation, action and thought are intertwined, with each at times providing the background for the other.

Wittgenstein often speaks of the background as a set of “propositions,” and he also speaks of a “world-picture.” But equally often he speaks, as mentioned previously, of actions, rather than propositions: the “end” of the justificatory questions is said to be not a proposition but a set of actions, a form of life. (Goodman, 20)

Wittgenstein’s insights into the nature of worldview are vitally important for missional biblical theology, both in terms of the way in which the putative biblical worldview interacts with and transforms the church’s worldview through theological language games, and in terms of the way that the church confronts other worldviews in its missional existence.  There are profound resonances with the missional understanding of the incarnation and of the kingdom of God manifest in Christlike lifestyle—the Reason (Logos) is embodied in the Way and can be mediated in no other form amidst incommensurate forms of life.


Badii, Renata, and Enrica Fabbri. “Framing Our World,or: Reconsidering the Idea of Weltbild.” Humana.Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies 18 (September 2011): 3–29.

Boncompagni, Anna. “‘The Mother-tongue of Thought’: James and Wittgenstein on Common Sense.” Cognitio 13, no. 1 (January/June 2012): 37–60.

Goodman, Russell B. Wittgenstein and William James. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Moyal-Sharrock, Danièle. “Logic in Action: Wittgenstein’s Logical Pragmatism and the Impotence of Scepticism.” Philosophical Investigations 26, no. 2 (April 2003), 125-48; I’m using a version available online, with different pagination; http://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/3841/903546.pdf?sequence=1.

Naugle, David K. Worldview: The History of a Concept. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Olthius, James H. “On Worldviews.” Christian Scholar’s Review 14, no. 2 (1985): 153-164; I’m using a version available online, with different pagination; http://www.freewebs.com/jamesolthuis/OnWorldviews.pdf.

Pihlström, Sami. “A New Look at Wittgenstein and Pragmatism,” European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 4, no. 2 (2012): 9–26.

Putnam, Hilary. Pragmatism: Open Question. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

Sire, James W. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1975.

________. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. Vol. 1. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

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