Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can

It is well known that Wittgenstein admired Kierkegaard, thought he was the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century and a saint, although towards the end of his life he got fed up with how constantly teasing Kierkegaard’s writing is.  (Kierkegaard thought this was positive — his writing was teasing the way existence is teasing).

I discovered a famous quote from Wittgenstein is a straight lift from Kierkegaard.  Wittgenstein is criticizing Sir James Frazer, the author of the Golden Bough.  Frazer, an early sociologist of religion,  is looking at human sacrifice and viewing it as a sort of primitive, misguided science.  He is the intellectual ancestor of today’s “New Atheists”.  Wittgenstein finds Frazer misses the boat and has a problem with the whole method.  Here is Wittgenstein on Frazer from the “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough”

A religious symbol does not rest on any opinion. And error belongs only with opinion.One would like to say: This is what took place here; laugh, if you can.

  • Ch. 7 : Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, p. 123

And here is Kierkegaard, from the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, arguing that whatever sort of problems or issues are addressed by religion they are not objective issues, and cannot be dealt with in the dispassionate spirit of inquiry:

Try this thought experiment: Imagine someone putting his guilt together with the conception of an eternal happiness, and who for that very reason becomes alone with himself, with the guilt and with God (where the truth lies, in contrast to all comparative bustle and unconcern in the herring shoal); imagine him desperately pondering the possibility that there might be something he can hit on as an atonement for his guilt, imagine the inventor’s anguish in case it were not possible after all to hit on something that would make it up with God: and then laugh if you can at the sufferer who hits on the penance, assuming, as one always may in a thought-experiment, that his intention and desire is in all honesty that God might be moved and mollified by all this suffering.

(2009-05-28). Kierkegaard: Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (p. 454). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Both thinkers leave us with a challenge to our sense of humor.

Are we the sort of people who can laugh at human sacrifice or human self-mortification?

Check and see!


12 thoughts on “Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can

  1. I’m unfamiliar with that Wittgenstein text, though it makes sense that he wrote about Frazer. Did you get it from “Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Occasions, 1912-1951,” which I haven’t seen? Amazon has it and I’d like to order it if it’s the right book. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Another Wittgenstein-Kierkegaard Connection: Laugh If You Can — Eric Linus Kaplan | wittyludwig

  3. I’ve re-read this post a few times now and been ruminating. Thanks for sharing! I think it’s a particularly good spot and I also especially enjoy that second excerpt. It has inspired me to purchase the Concluding Unscientific Postscript because it has been nagging me for some time that I’ve never read anything by Kierkegaard.

    As to your question: years ago, certainly yes; these days less so.

    • Also, I forgot to ask:

      “although towards the end of his life he got fed up with how constantly teasing Kierkegaard’s writing is”

      Where do you draw this from? I remember the phrase ‘Kierkegaard is too deep for me’ being recollected in many of his friends’ memoirs but just wondered if you had any other sources/references you could point me towards.

  4. I believe it is cited in ginia Schonbaumfield’s A Confusion of the Spheres — Kierkegaard and wittgenstein on Philosophy and Religion. Why is your sense of humor changing these days do you think?

    • That also looks interesting. You’ll bankrupt me at this rate.

      Only to the extent everything else changes, I suppose– at its core, I don’t think so! I’m less impatient these days. As a youngster, I was consumed with a fiery passion when it came to religion and religious people. It took a while and a lot of reading for that to dissipate.

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