In his remarks on fire rituals, and in particular on the Beltane Festival (Fr, 246ff.), Wittgenstein again and again speaks of the “depth” of these practices and their contemplation, and in this connection he often uses the word “sinister.” In this context Wittgenstein makes a claim which is not easy to interpret. A correct reading of this passage, however, is important for it is of fundamental significance. Wittgenstein writes:
Indeed, how is it that in general human sacrifice is so deep and sinister? For is it only the suffering of the victim that makes this impression on us? There are illnesses of all kinds which are connected with just as much suffering, nevertheless they do not call forth this impression. No, the deep and the sinister do not become apparent merely by our coming to know the history of the external action, rather it is we who ascribe them [tragen es wieder hinein] from an inner experience. (Fr, 249)
If this passage is to be connected in a coherent fashion with Wittgenstein’s other thoughts, it must not be construed in a way that makes it appear as if what is deep and sinister is a more or less typical feeling which is triggered in us by such practices (or reports of them) and is then projected by us onto those very practices.
I suspect that the “inner experience” [Erfahrung in unserm Innern] mentioned by Wittgenstein in this passage is the extremely complicated and in-direct insight that certain ways of action correspond to certain patterns which force themselves on us in an almost irresistible manner. Someone who contemplates the structure of what seems at first glance an innocent practice and suddenly notices how naturally it comes to him to think “At this point a human sacrifice is required” (or “Without a human sacrifice this entire procedure is senseless” etc.) may be dismayed by this thought. At this moment he becomes aware of what is sinister and deep about it—his dismay brings forth what is sinister, and the inexorability of the image forcing itself upon him suggests depth.
Such a pattern is something that resides in ourselves; it is something natural, it conforms to our nature; it is deeply rooted within us. This state of things lies in darkness (Wittgenstein’s German word “finster” means both “dark” and “sinister”). The fact noted by Wittgenstein that we tend to “carry back” sinisterness and depth into a described or observed practice does not mean that we tend to project a certain feeling onto it and thus confer sinister and deep aspects on it. What it means is that we (can learn to) see it as something sinister and deep, just as we (can learn to) hear a certain sequence of notes as a melody, as the inversion of a given theme, etc. If a practice is seen according to a pattern which in its turn corresponds to a pattern of our own nature, it assumes a certain expression—surely a deep and perhaps a sinister one.
When confronted with certain rituals we often cannot help exclaiming words to the effect that “This practice is obviously ancient.” (Fr, 248) This sort of response does not originate in an historical hypothesis; it is a matter of instinct, an expression of our spontaneous recognition of a certain pattern which belongs to our nature. This too is “a document of a tendency in the human mind.” (LoE, 44) It is an expression of what Peter Hacker aptly calls “the common wonder of mankind”45: we marvel at the patterns of human life; and the fact that people marvel at certain kinds of patterns is a fact whose recognition helps human beings to recognize themselves and each other as beings of a certain kind. It is a reasonable move on Hacker’s part to associate this common wonder with Philosophical Investigations, §206, a passage of central importance in Wittgenstein’s work: “The common behaviour of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language.” If one reads this passage in the light of the above considerations one can hardly help supposing that what Wittgenstein is talking about is a common human nature.46
Note 2: I read the quoted passage “This, too, admits of being ‘explained’ and not explained” (Fr, 236) in a way which is different from the interpretation given by Cioffi and Hacker. These authors read the first occurrence of “explained” (italicised47 and in quotation marks) in such a way that the word receives a completely different sense from that given to the second occurrence of “explained” (without quotation marks). In its first sense “explain” is said to mean “elucidate”, “clarify”, etc. in the sense of a hermeneutic kind of understanding. In its second sense it is said to mean scientific (causal, hypothetico-deductive, strictly historical) explanation.
Of course, this is a possible (admissible) interpretation of the passage quoted, but I feel that it is not consonant with Wittgenstein’s intentions. I think that both times the word “erklären” is used in the same sense. The point of the passage is that in this context explanation does not result in what it is expected to result in, viz. satisfaction, “understanding.” Take the explanation of a given passage from a piece of music. I may inform another person about harmonic progressions, rhythmic effects, parallels in other works, and so on and so forth. By telling him about these things I have certainly conveyed some information; and in a sense this information may even be “exhaustive.” But if the other person—in accordance with the silent premise of the quoted passage from Wittgenstein—has no or too little musical knowledge, my information will not speak to him, nor will it tell him anything.
In the same way one may tell a person willing to learn about these matters many things about religious practices—but if he has no religious bent, i.e. if those gestures do not speak to him, that sort of explanation will achieve next to nothing. Such explanations will remain idle. The learner may understand the letter, but he will not grasp the spirit. The letter may be explained, the spirit does not admit of explanation. Thus the quoted passage from Wittgenstein does not involve an ambiguity afflicting the word “explain.” The point is that we are dealing with two different explananda—religious acts as historical occurrences [LETTER] vs. religious acts as part of a practice into which one may be initiated and which needs to be lived to be understood [spirit]. It may be quite possible to explain a religious act, but explaining it will not achieve much if the practice concerned (e.g. confession of sins) does not speak to me. That does not mean that this gesture will have to remain alien to me forever. There are all kinds of means (practicing, training, exercises) which may help me to reach understanding. And once I have been trained that way, explanations too may be helpful. Until this point has been reached explanations will leave me cold; they do not concern me, they do not ring a bell. In such a case I shall for instance remain incapable of hitting unaided on illuminating parallels that would mean something to people who are sensitive to religious issues.
To be sure, the ethnological approach favoured by Wittgenstein suggests that we look at matters from a detached (objective) point of view, but at the same time understanding would be impossible unless we are involved to such an extent that the things observed (practices, ceremonies, rituals, etc.) mean something to us. That is, we must be able to find a continuation without outside assistance. To revert to our musical parallel: We must be able to play (sing, whistle) a passage the way it is or may be meant.48