Greg Bahnsen’s Philosophical Confusion

Greg BahnsenProponents of presuppositional apologetics possess a habitual inability to get things right when it comes to philosophy. Greg Bahnsen’s interpretation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his treatment of the cosmological argument are good examples of philosophical confusion in order to prop up a faulty apologetic methodology. For now, I want to focus on Bahnsen’s interpretation of Wittgenstein.

Within this statement is a footnote referencing Wittgenstein, “If the apologist treats the starting point of knowledge as something other than reverence to God, then unconditional submission to the unsurpassed greatness of God’s wisdom at the end of his argumentation does not really make sense.”[1] The footnote says this,

“Ludwig Wittgenstein confessed that a devastating incongruity lay at the heart of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. If he was correct in his eventual conclusions, then the premises used to reach that conclusion were actually meaningless: ‘Anyone who understands me eventually recognizes [my propositions] as nonsensical, when he has used them –as steps- to climb up beyond them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)’ In similar fashion, evangelicals sometimes utilize an autonomous apologetical method. Instead of assuming the authority of Christ, they use that method like a ladder to climb up to acceptance of Christ’s claim, only then to “throw the ladder away,” since Christ is now seen as having an ultimate authority that conflicts with that method.”

It is incredible that Bahnsen would take this passage and somehow associates it with apologetic methodology. In order to properly understand Wittgenstein’s statement, you have to understand what Wittgenstein was attempting to accomplish with his philosophical endeavors.

Let’s take a very brief look at Wittgenstein’s thought.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein believed he had successfully solved the problems of philosophy. On Wittgenstein’s view, the mistake of previous philosophical thought was imbued with the error of attempting to say the unsayable. For Wittgenstein, the task of philosophy was to show what cannot be said, and what cannot be said are philosophical or metaphysical propositions.[2] An immediate retort could be that Wittgenstein’s entire Tractatus is caught in a trap because the propositions therein are exactly the kinds of propositions that cannot be said. While this is entirely true, it is not a flaw in the Tractatus, but the purpose of it. The Tractatus is meant to be a ladder by which you climb up, and upon reaching the top something should occur to you; if you have understood its purpose you can thank Wittgenstein for allowing you to get along with your life. You have been freed from worrying about philosophical problems because they have been traps from the very beginning. When philosophy has been buried, we can now focus on things that are more meaningful, which happen to be propositions associated with the hard sciences.

Bahnsen’s claim that an incongruity exists in Wittgenstein’s thought is simply incorrect. The depiction of a ladder that needed to be thrown away in the Tractatus, as Bahnsen claims, wasn’t a literary device constructed in order to represent an understanding of faulty presuppositions leading to unintelligibility. The steps of the ladder are the propositions of the TractatusThe ladder is philosophy itself. Wittgenstein was trying to get rid of philosophy. The deepest problem of philosophy, on Wittgenstein’s view, is philosophy, and not faulty presuppositions, as Bahnsen would have you believe. Since this is a more accurate representation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, any comparison of it to apologetic method is ineffective.

Unfortunately for Wittgenstein, he was unsatisfied with his conclusions in the Tractatus.  The arguments provided in his early work did not drive the stake far enough into the heart of philosophy, so he embarked on a different strategy with the same goal in mind – to bury philosophy once and for all.

When entering the world of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, we immediately recognize that it is much different than the Tractatus. In the Tractatus there is a theoretical formal structure of language, the ontological foundation is atomism, the structure of language is to be considered completely independent of our socio-cultural relations, we cannot pry language and the world apart because of the picture that is shared with the world, and science is the ultimate standard for our propositions. In Philosophical Investigations, there is no formal structure of language, there is no ontological foundation, language is entirely influenced by our socio-cultural relations, we cannot pry language and the world apart because meaning is dependent upon use, and “language games” are the cornerstone of explanation and description.  

While meaning in the Tractatus is reference via picture to world connection; meaning in Philosophical Investigations is dependent on use. Meaning depends on the use of the words, and words are like a toolbox affording us the right tools given the context of the language game. Instead of working towards building a theoretical structure of language, Wittgenstein emphatically insists that we look at how language is used.

Like the Tractatus, the aim of the Investigations is meant to make philosophical problems go away. In paragraph 133 of the Investigations he says, “For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity.  But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.” The only way to have complete clarity is to take off the philosophical lenses we view the world through, and actually look at what is going on. Wittgenstein continues in the same paragraph, “The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.” One wonders if we could replace the word “philosophy” in the sentence, “The one that gives philosophy peace…” with Ludwig himself.  After all, it seems as if it was Wittgenstein himself seeking peace from the torments of philosophy.

In the end, the Investigations are as self destructive as the Tractatus. This of course isn’t a problem for Wittegenstein, it is his purpose. Each system has this specific aim; one is to show the person out of the fly bottle, and the other is a ladder to climb up in order to throw it away. The problem is, what if you find yourself in another fly bottle or once you climb the ladder you turn around to only find another waiting to be climbed. What if the world is one big fly bottle? What if it is ladders all the way up?  What if it is true that philosophy always buries its undertakers? What if?

Bahnsen misses all of this, badly misinterprets Wittgenstein, and makes illegitimate use of this passage in an attempt to bolster his apologetic methodology.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Van Til’s Apologetic, Pg. 3

[2] The Twentieth Century to Quine and Derrida, Jones, Pg. 235

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