ArgLab • Permanent Seminar

Robert Vinten

Wittgenstein, Buddhism, and Guilt

Wittgenstein made great efforts to be a decent person and was hard on himself when he failed to live up to his own high standards. He felt guilty about moments of cowardice when fighting in the First World War and about his harsh treatment of school children he taught in Austria. He made confessions years after these events – even going to the effort of travelling to Austria and knocking on the doors of ex-pupils to apologise. In connection with religion he said that “[a]nyone who is half-way decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched” (Culture and Value, 51e).


However, while feeling wretched about one’s sins can perhaps be said to be central to Christianity it is much less clear that it is central to Buddhism – a religion which Wittgenstein had little to say about. In this paper I will ask whether Wittgenstein’s insights about religion can help us to understand Buddhism and also discuss the role of guilt in Buddhism in contrast to Christianity. I will conclude that Wittgenstein can help us to understand Buddhism and that Buddhism is not so distant from Christianity as some commentators have suggested.