Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) focus on beliefs about God, Gordon Graham begins by reminding us. The Natural History of Religion (1757) explores the place of religion in human life. For decades, Wittgenstein's later philosophy has been drafted to clarify religious beliefs, so Graham maintains, thinking of the ‘Swansea Wittgensteinians’ (Rush Rhees, D. Z. Phillips, Peter Winch). Accordingly, in chapters 3 and 4, he debunks language games, forms of life, systems of reference and the rest of the worn-out late Wittgensteinian jargon which he finds in their books. In chapter 5 he discusses philosophers who regard Wittgenstein's philosophy as itself ‘religious’ (Philip R. Shields, James C. Edwards, Norman Malcolm). Rejecting all this, Graham turns to what Wittgenstein might offer positively, first endorsing the view that Wittgenstein's later philosophy is ‘therapeutic’ (chapter 6): we have to look at what religion is like, without preconceptions in favour of a belief system. Then, in his admiration for William James’ Gifford Lectures and his contempt for The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer's even more famous book (back then), Wittgenstein's account of religion highlights ritual and practices rather than beliefs (chapter 7). Again in debate with Hume, now attacking his analogy of the world as a ‘great theatre’ and ourselves as mere spectators, Graham argues (in chapter 8) that religion is properly seen as ‘essentially practical rather than speculative’, ‘a way of being in the world, rather than a system of thought about the world’ (p. 151, his italics). Finally, the post-Wittgensteinian ‘anti-intellectualism about religion’ (p. 197) which he is developing takes Graham close (in chapter 9) to Thomas Reid's insistence on practical ethics rather than moral theory (1788). Even more to the point, a couple of pages from the end, he sums up his thesis in a wonderful quotation from the young Aberdeen divine, Henry Scougal's now forgotten classic The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1677): ‘true religion’ is not to be found in ‘understanding orthodox notions and opinions’, not even in ‘external duties [like] the relief of the poor’, let alone in ‘rapturous heats and ecstatic devotion’ – ‘true religion is . . . a real participation of the divine nature’ (p. 199).
This outline does little justice to a splendid book. As founding editor of the Journal of Scottish Philosophy Graham obviously has a perspective that previous readers of Wittgenstein lack. The language-game jargon, as he rightly says, is found now (if at all) only in first-year philosophy of religion historical surveys. On the other hand, if he were to get to Gregynog for the annual conferences he would find much lively debate in Wittgenstein's wake, often led by Scandinavian scholars. Rhees, the progenitor of the Swansea school, turns out, in posthumously published papers, to have been extremely unhappy about Wittgenstein's talk of language as a game; and, while personally Rhees was deeply attracted to the old-style Latin Mass, he found Catholic beliefs unintelligible. In papers such as his Marett lecture, Phillips was perhaps not so far from Graham's position as might seem. Wittgenstein and Hume have been read in mutually illuminating ways by philosophers with no interest in religion, which might strengthen Graham's case. How much of Hume was ever read by Wittgenstein we are unlikely now to find out: the Tractatus is dedicated to the memory of David Hume Pinsent, his best friend at Cambridge, killed in 1918, descended from Hume's elder brother, as the family proudly remembered – the two friends must surely have peeked into the philosopher's works in their college library.