Religion and the Rebel, Part 21

Religion and the Rebel, Part 21


Finally, we have arrived at the last chapter of this book. It’s been a long road. I have learned much from Colin Wilson. He has been a great inspiration to me this year. Even though he has passed from this world, the spirit of his work lives on in his over one hundred books. The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel have been outstanding studies for me. I have branched out from mainly doing articles on depth psychology to more existentialist issues, which I feel very strongly about. I have actually come full circle. I began reading existentialist philosophy around 1990-1991, and then discovered depth psychology, which I have concentrated on for many years.

This chapter deals with two very renowned philosophers: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alfred North Whitehead. Let’s see how their work ties into the Outsider philosophy. I will cover Wittgenstein in this article, and Whitehead in the last installment to the series.

As usual, I will not summarize the biographical points made by Wilson unless they are pertinent to the Outsider’s problem. There is a brief rundown of Wittgenstein’s life here. I will say I was particularly impressed with Wittgenstein because of his generosity to writers and artists. He was born into one of Europe’s richest families, yet he gave away most of his inheritance, some to artists and writers, and the remainder to his siblings.

Wittgenstein’s two primary works are the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1922 (a better English translation was done in 1961), and Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953. In Religion and the Rebel, Wilson refers to the Tractacus as “the Discussion,” from the original German name of the work, Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung.

Wilson wants us to know what is important about the Discussion is that “it sets limits to philosophy.”1 What he means by this is that language is defined “as a picture of reality. In other words, what is not real cannot be said.”2 The first proposition is this: “The world is everything that is the case.” This is a true proposition. ” the world is all the facts in the universe.”3

He then goes on (proposition 6.41 – the Discussion is divided into numbered propositions for clarity):

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value…

Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher. It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. . . .

6.423. Of the will as the subject of the ethical we cannot speak.

In other words, language has no business trying to express propositions about ethics, the Will, or life and death. If the meaning of the world lies outside the world, then it cannot be expressed in language, which only expresses what is in the world.4

Wittgenstein mentions death and immortality:

Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through. If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present.5

This is where Wittgenstein’s thinking ventures into the realm of mysticism. Many mystics speak of living in the Eternal Now, or living in the moment. The main point is that he admits it exists. Wittgenstein goes on to argue against the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, as taught by mainstream Christianity. To his thinking, this is “naive Christianity, the spiritualist notion that life goes on unaltered in another world after death.”6 To Wittgenstein,

The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical feeling.

For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed.

The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. . . .7

Wilson compares this form of mysticism with Dostoevsky’s character, Kirilov, in The Devils. Wilson says, “The mere existence of anything is a mystical fact – a leaf, a grain of sand.” Wittgenstein believes that “the mystical” is totally inexpressible, therefore philosophy should be limited to “the propositions of natural science.”8 Since the mystical is inexpressible, it should not be spoken of in any way. He views this as a “solution to the problem of life.”9 The last sentence of the Tractacus simply states,

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Wittgenstein believes he has solved the problems of philosophy by simply omitting all metaphysical statements from discussion. But, as Wilson asks, “. . .if all statements about the meaning of the world are nonsense, are not Wittgenstein’s statements in the Discussion also nonsense?”10 Wittgenstein is saying that if we want to do philosophy, we cannot speak at all about God, good and evil, will, death, or meaning and purpose in life. But his own attempt at a limited philosophy of reality fails if we apply his rule to his philosophizing. As to Wittgenstein’s statement, “the riddle does not exist, ” Wilson says:

The sentence ‘The riddle does not exist’ (i.e. ‘the riddle of life’) has been seized on with delight by logical positivists as being a justification for considering all questions about the meaning of life as nonsense. They are ignoring the fact that two paragraphs earlier, Wittgenstein speaks of the riddle quite plainly: ‘Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one? The solution of the riddle . . . lies outside space and time.’ And his last sentence implies that, as Dante says, a point comes where one cannot use words anymore. A logical positivist has quoted this last sentence ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,’ and added: ‘That’s all right – provided we’re agreed that there’s nothing to be silent about.’ Now Wittgenstein has stated very plainly that there is something to be silent about. The logical positivist was merely making a statement about his own temperament – an Insider temperament – and was trying to assert that it ought to fit the whole world.11

So, the logical positivist basically ignores Wittgenstein’s admission that there is something that exists he calls “the mystical.” This bit of dishonesty invalidates the logical positivist’s position.

Then, Wilson asks how this all affects the existentialist. He wants to steer clear of all abstraction regarding the language of philosophy and go directly to an explanation of existentialism by providing examples of actual persons. He says, “. . . the only way one can talk about the problems of ‘meaning’ in life is by showing them in terms of living people.”12 This seems to be a good path to follow, since it uses images of people who actually lived and died in this world, people like Van Gogh, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky. Wilson makes it very plain what his position is:

One cannot talk about the real issues of life: one can only show them.13

And, as you know if you’ve read these books, he uses many examples of real people to show the Outsider’s philosophy.

The language of poetry is quite different than discursive language. Poems, such as Kubla Khan, and Rilke’s Orpheus Sonnets communicate that which “cannot be expressed in ordinary language.”14 Furthermore, “poetry can present certain mystical issues, but it cannot investigate them. It can only show them in the way that a flash of lightning lights up a landscape.”15 Also, a powerful writer like Dostoevsky is able to “show the reader insights which he could not have expressed if he had been writing a philosophical treatise.”16 Wilson eloquently sums up by saying,

True existentialism is the dramatic investigation of human nature through the medium of art. The true existentialist philosopher is the ‘artist-philosopher’ of whom Shaw spoke in Man and Superman.17

Of course, some of Wittgenstein’s positions changed in Philosophical Investigations. Wilson declares that, in the end, he “must ultimately be reckoned a failure.” His legacies are logical positivism and linguistic analysis. Neither come close to solving the Outsider’s problem. “Wittgenstein himself failed because he could not resist the temptation of intellect. . . . After admitting that the really important things cannot be talked about, he went on talking for the rest of his life.”18



Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.

  1. Religion and the Rebel, 296
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. qtd. in Religion and the Rebel, 297
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. Religion and the Rebel, 298
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.
  11. Religion and the Rebel, 299
  12. Religion and the Rebel, 300
  13. ibid.
  14. ibid.
  15. ibid.
  16. Religion and the Rebel, 301
  17. ibid.
  18. Religion and the Rebel, 303

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2 thoughts on “Religion and the Rebel, Part 21

    1. Thank you. The next one is much more interesting. Alfred North Whitehead may turn out to be the greatest mind of the 20th century. I’ll have that article out in a bit. Stay tuned! 🙂

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