A Note on a Remark in Philosophical Investigations

Peter K. Westergaard


In the fourth section of Philosophical Investigations“Part II”, Wittgenstein discusses the concept of a person and the body-mind problem. During his discussion he undertakes a detour. He makes a remark concerning a problem in the philosophy of religion that preoccupied him throughout his life, not least in the Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. It is the question of the immortality of the soul or the possibility of eternal life. In the Investigations he writes: "Religion teaches that the soul can exist when the body has disintegrated. Now do I understand this teaching? – Of course I understand it – I can imagine plenty of things in connexion with it." (PI, IIiv) Seen in its immediate context, this remark is capable of various interpretations – three, to be precise. (i) The semantic interpretation, in which this passage links in to the ensuing discussion of the picture concept via the question of the extent to which the semantic content and linguistic use of a painted picture might correspond to the content and function of the proposition. (ii) The epistemological interpretation, in which the text prepares the ground for the question of what enables a picture, such as the picture of the soul’s immortality and eternal life, to “force itself upon us”. And finally (iii) a surface grammatical interpretation, in which the text is read merely as Wittgenstein’s admission that he finds it unproblematic to point out some of the imaginary ideas that a religious use of language associates with “this teaching”. In what follows I shall attempt to sketch the possibility of a fourth interpretation: (iv) an ethical-existential reading, in which the remark is read as a personal affirmation that “this teaching” appears comprehensible, meaningful and useful for Wittgenstein himself. The statement prompts many associations and ideas in him. And the crucial question that we have to ask here is: What, in more precise terms, does Wittgenstein himself imagine in connection with the teaching that the soul endures once the body has ceased to exist, especially since, at the same time, he specifically rejects the possibility of life post mortem? My attempt to sketch an answer to this question will relate the above quotation to a sequence of remarks that occur in Wittgenstein’s diary notes of February 1937, now published in Denkbewegungen. Tagebücher 1930-1932/1936-1937. At the same time this approach will reveal one of the many threads that run between Wittgenstein’s earlier and later thought.


philosophy; 20th century philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; ethics; happiness; eternity; death; immortality

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