The Wretchedness of Belief

Robert Christopher Plant

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In Culture and Value Wittgenstein remarks that the truly "religious man" 14 thinks himself to be, not merely "imperfect" or "ill," but wholly "wretched." While such sentiments are of obvious biographical interest, in this paper I show why they are also worthy of serious philosophical attention. Although the influence of Wittgenstein's thinking on the philosophy of religion is often judged negatively (as, for example, leading to quietist and/or fideist-relativist conclusions) I argue that the distinctly ethical conception of religion (specifically Christianity) that Wittgenstein presents should lead us to a quite different assessment. In particular, his preoccupation with the categorical nature of religion suggests a conception of "genuine" religious belief which disrupts both the economics of eschatological-salvationist hope, and the traditional ethical precept that "ought implies can." In short, what Wittgenstein presents is a sketch of a religion without recompense.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)449-476
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Religious Ethics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • Wittgenstein
  • guilt
  • religion
  • ethics of belief


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