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Wittgenstein: Religion and Nonsense

January 12, 2019 - January 13, 2019

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Wittgenstein’s ideas about religion have been much more influential than is sometimes thought. The first two lectures will consider this influence, concentrating on Wittgenstein’s remarks on James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Wittgenstein’s proposal that we overcome the temptation to view certain religious practices as simply confused or nonsensical. We shall look at this through the lens of D.Z.Phillips’ ‘contemplative conception of philosophy’, the purpose of which is to disclose ‘possibilities of sense’ within religious forms of life. In lectures three and four we shall consider the connections between Wittgenstein’s views on ethics and his treatment of value in the Tractatus, and so to his early conception of sense and nonsense in language. It will be suggested that Wittgenstein’s treatment of absolute value in his ‘Lecture on Ethics’, taken together with his comparison of mathematical conjectures with riddles, provides a fruitful way of understanding a range of religious uses of language. It will be claimed that Wittgensteinian sense can be made of the thought that religious language is necessarily nonsensical, but none the worse for that; indeed, if it were not nonsensical, it could not have the significance that religious believers attribute to it, and to the faith it expresses.


Dr Mikel Burley
Mikel (‘Mik’) Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds. Working across both philosophy and religious studies, his publications include Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics (2016) and Contemplating Religious Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and D. Z. Phillips (2012). He is currently editing a volume entitled Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics: New Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology.

Professor Stephen Mulhall
Stephen Mulhall is a Professor of Philosophy and a Tutorial Fellow of New College, Oxford. His interests include Wittgenstein; Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre; the relation between philosophy and the arts; and the relation between philosophy and theology. His most recent books are: The Great Riddle: Wittgenstein and Nonsense, Theology and Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2015) and On Film: 3rd Edition (Routledge, 2016).

Ms Marianne Talbot
Director of Studies

Marianne Talbot took her first degree at London University, then her B.Phil at Oxford (Corpus Christi College). She has taught for the colleges of Oxford University for 30 years (1987 – 1990 at Pembroke College, 1991 – 2000 at Brasenose College). She has been Director of Studies in Philosophy at OUDCE since 2001. She is the author of Bioethics: An Introduction, and Critical Reasoning: A Romp Through the Foothills of Logic. Marianne’s podcasts have been hugely popular. Two of them have been global number one on iTunesU. One of these (The Nature of Arguments) has been downloaded 7 million times.


January 12, 2019
January 13, 2019
Event Category:


Department of Continuing Education
Oxford, OX1 2JA United Kingdom + Google Map
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