When Language Goes on a Holiday

Noted Austrian philosopher and dominant figure in the philosophy of language and logic, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an interesting intellectual in line of the discussion regarding religious language. In his book Philosophical Investigations, we read his famous line in section 38: “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” [1]. Though this quote has a corresponding context, I of course used it to provide a title for the discussion of this post.

In respect to everyday language, the average person doesn’t always reflect on the very philosophical nature of what they’re doing. No one should really expect them too. In order to provide a demonstration for this “philosophic nature”, take for example Wittgenstein’s attention to the conundrum of trying to identify an object:

It is quite true that, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we often point to the object named and say the name. And similarly, in giving an ostensive definition for instance, we say the word “this” while pointing to a thing. And also the word “this” and a name often occupy the same position in a sentence. But it is precisely characteristic of a name that it is defined by means of the demonstrative expression “That is N” (or “That is called ‘N’ “). [2]

In other words, in trying to define some given object, there seems to be this relationship between naming the object and the object itself. However, just exactly what is this relationship? Wittgenstein gives a response:

[Y]ou really get such a queer connexion when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word “this” innumerable times.

Thus, in direct consequence, Wittgenstein says, “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” However, I use this quote to bring out a larger issue at hand in respect to our belief in God. A belief in which, we believers consider to be coherent and intelligible in terms of content. Even more so, that our belief in God is one that can be conveyed in terms of a coherent form of language, from believer to believer and to unbeliever alike. However, my focus for this post is to give attention to the discussion of this issue, and what exactly is the function of our religious language. Is it incoherent, univocal, equivocal, analogical, etc. (important terms to remember for the remainder of this post).

The Issue at Hand

First, I don’t want to confuse the coherence of theism when I speak about a coherent mode of religious language. In other words, I’m not asking as to whether or not the idea of God is a coherent one. Discussions of that sort can be found within the works of Kai Nielsen, George H. Smith, Richard Swinburne and many others [3]. However, to state our issue in a quick manner, the subject of religious language contains a problem of meaning.

Particularly, that it is important to remember that when speaking about the “validity” or “truth” of some given proposition, thing, or idea, that we are also concerned with the meaning of that proposition/thing/idea. To make a point from Vern Poythress,

To speak of “validity” is to make a statement about content and meaning. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. To speak of “truth” is to also to be concerned with meaning. The very form of the argument is important only because it points to something about the nature of truth and validity. [4]

Thus, if religious language is incoherent, then that seems to leave little room for the belief in God(s). However, there must be a distinction made in respect to the division of given camps before we can exposit particular views:

  • (1) Cognitive Language
  • (2) Non-Cognitive Language

In respect to (1) I don’t mean to necessarily speak on the subject of natural language being grounded in human cognition. Philosopher Peter Carruthers from the University of Maryland has done some interesting work on this subject [5], but is more so for the discussion of the philosophy of cognitive science and not for ours here. However, what I do mean by (1) is cognitive language that is a discussion of knowledge and facts (e.g., Hellenistic Christendom is a philosophy page), whereas non-cognitive language discusses or expresses things that we could never really “know”, such as values, feelings, etc. (e.g., the author of Hellenistic Christendom is a compassionate person).

One particular camp as opposed to the other might emphasize the latter view of language (e.g., critics of religion), in as much, that “whereof we cannot speak thereof we cannot know” (Wittgenstein). To move on to the particulars, let’s examine a view perspectives who found religious language to be meaningless.

A.J. Ayer and The Failure of Metaphysical Deduction

Ayer’s critique of a metaphysical reality is much similar to his critique regarding the existence of God. In fact, he writes, “[t]his mention of God brings us to the question of the possibility of religious knowledge. We shall see that this possibility has already been ruled out by our treatment of metaphysics.” [6] Particularly, as seen from his argument in The Elimination of Metaphysics (1952, 33), Ayer outlines his criticism of a metaphysical reality by asking the metaphysician to justify his knowledge regarding this transcendent reality:

One way of attacking a metaphysician who claimed to have knowledge of a reality which transcended the phenomenal world would be to enquire from what premises his propositions were deduced. Must he not begin, as other man do, with the evidence of his senses? And if so, what valid process of reasoning can possibly lead him to the conception of a transcendent reality? Surely from empirical premises nothing whatsoever concerning the properties, or even the existence, of anything super-empirical can legitimately be inferred. [7]

Likewise, in the same way with his critique of the existence of God, Ayer amounts empirical propositions to only be probable propositions; so as to say that God cannot be known a priori (i.e., to have logical certainty) but only a posteriori. However, if God’s existence were even probable, “then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis.” [8] This becomes problematic [in that] from the proposition of God’s existence, other empirical hypotheses and respective experiential propositions are able to be deduced whereas from other hypotheses they didn’t have that privilege. Yet, in an unfortunate fashion, Ayer states that “this is not possible.”

More so, since Ayer rejects the existence of a metaphysical reality by virtue of his limiting of propositions to be either analytic or synthetic, he argues that “no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.” [9] Those propositions, by the way, are distinguished as such:

  • Analytic Propositions: A statement that is purely definitional, or true by definition (e.g., a square circle is false).
  • Synthetic Propositions: A statement that is verifiable, or able to be confirmed by the senses (e.g., the chicken is raw).

Thus, any other statement, whether ethical, theological or metaphysical, are meaningless, or non-sense. It’s not Ayer’s position that religious propositions are false, just that they are meaningless in scope.

Some Criticisms of Ayer’s Position

What are we to say in light of Ayer’s “thrusting” argument? A few responses can be accumulated. Norman Geisler in an overview of the general consensus position, writes:

The principle of verification has gone through many revisions by Ayer and by others in attempts to save it from collapse. Some have broadened it to include experiences that are not strictly empirical and others prefer to speak of confirmation rather than verification. But the original form of the principle of verification is all but universally rejected, even by most members of the original Vienna Circle. One objection to the principle of empirical verifiability is that the principle itself is not empirically verifiable. [10]

John Hick in his work Faith and Knowledge [11] draws upon the idea that talk of God might be verifiable in principle. In the spirit of a response, Hick concedes to and accepts Ayer’s verification principle. Thence, Hick goes on to argue that the overall claim (or claims) of Christian faith can be verified in the afterlife if it is indeed true, however, if those respective Christian claims are false, it therefore cannot be falsified, since there would be no afterlife in which to falsify those beliefs. Thus, Hick offers a parable about an atheist and a theist walking down a long road to which believes is a great “Celestial City”, while the other believes he is going nowhere. Hick goes on to explain:

During the course of the journey the issue between them is not an experimental one. They do not entertain different expectations about the coming details of the road, but only about its ultimate destination. And yet when they do turn the last corner it will be apparent that one of them has been right all the time and the other wrong. Thus, although the issue between them has not been experimental, it has nevertheless from the start been a real issue. They have not merely felt differently about the road; for one was feeling appropriately and the other inappropriately in relation to the actual state of affairs. Their opposed interpretations of the road constituted genuinely rival assertions, though assertions whose status has the peculiar characteristic of being guaranteed retrospectively by a future crux. [12]

This is where the term “eschatological verification” that Hick coined comes from. Otherwise shortly stated, the idea of judgement assumes that God will (and can) be seen and known. Now, whether or not I really agree with Hick’s thesis here, I do happen to think it is respectively weak in terms of a reply, but is not so much a “rag” that needs to be tossed out of our consideration. It is nonetheless a meritous discussion to have in terms of religious epistemology.



  • [1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe (Basil Blackwell: 1958) Section 38, 19*
  • [2] Ibid., p. 19*
  • [3] See Kai Nielsen, Atheism and Philosophy (Promotheus: 2005) for a good discussion and application of the subject of coherence.
  • [4] Vern S. Poythress, Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundations of Western Thought (Crossway: 2013) p. 160
  • [5] See Peter Carruthers essay in The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Cognitive Science (Oxford University Press: 2012) pp. 382-401
  • [6] A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Dover ed., 1952) p. 114
  • [7] Ayer, 33
  • [8] Ayer, 115
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Norman Geisler, Introduction to Philosophy (Baker Books: 1980) p. 50
  • [11] John Hick, Faith and Knowledge: A Modern Introduction to the Problem of Religious Knowledge (Wipf. & Stock Publishers: 2nd. edition, 2009) 278 pages, or, see Faith and Knowledge, 2d. ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966 (1957).
  • [12] See Hick, Faith and Knowledge (Cornell University Press: 1966) pp. 177-178

One response to “When Language Goes on a Holiday

  1. You might find it interesting to read W’s *Lectures and Conversations*, if you haven’t already. I imply his but, really, three of his students’ collated notes. This, combined with some comments to be found in *On Culture and Value*, is hugely interesting.

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