Friday, 26 August 2011

Some Remarks on St Augustine

Philosophical Investigations opens with a quote from St Augustine describing how he first learnt to understand language: “When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out.” (Confessions, 1.8)

This choice of quote has always struck me as strange. Why Augustine? Wittgenstein could have chosen from numerous actual philosophers whose views on meaning exemplified the position he wanted to attack. Why not Locke, for example, or something from his own earlier work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus? When I read (in Ray Monk’s biography) that Wittgenstein had chosen St Augustine precisely because he wasn’t a philosopher, my puzzlement only grew. I think, however, that I’m finally starting to see what he was getting at.

The quote from the Confessions represents the voice of the intelligent layperson rather than the professional philosopher. It shows how we all engage with philosophical issues at times – often without realising we’re doing it. And when this happens we reveal something about our fundamental background assumptions; however crudely, we take up a particular philosophical position on things (and, again, we typically don’t realise this – we consider our views to be “plain facts” or “common sense”). Of course, being “amateurs” we probably don’t fully work through the implications of this position, but we are certainly facing in a particular direction, whether or not we choose to march on down that road.

Here’s Wittgenstein’s comment on Augustine’s account:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the words in language name objects – sentences are combinations of such names. – In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Philosophical Investigations §1
Notice how Wittgenstein doesn’t attribute the last part of his description to Augustine directly. Augustine (he says) merely considers that words name objects. He goes on to criticise this picture on the relatively trivial grounds that it mistakes a tiny part of language for the whole (see §3, though also §32, which suggests a more subtle error). Moreover, the fact that someone like Augustine (whom Wittgenstein admired) felt it natural to represent the workings of language in this way showed that there was something tempting – perhaps even compelling – about the picture he painted. It was the sort of view that many intelligent, thoughtful people might find attractive. So if Augustine was making a mistake, he wasn’t making a stupid mistake (cf §340).

However, as Wittgenstein makes clear, the Augustinian picture does lay a sort of trap for the philosophically minded: they may be tempted to go on and conclude that every word has a meaning, which is the object for which the word stands. In other words, they may use Augustine's relatively innocent picture as the basis for a full-blown theory about how language achieves meaning. I think Wittgenstein considered this to be a more fundamental error – and one which lay at the very heart of his own earlier philosophy.

One final thought: the choice of Augustine suggests to me something about the audience Wittgenstein might’ve been writing for. Reading the Investigations, with its (deceptively) simple style and constant dialogues between the author and a bright but bewildered interlocutor, its tone is not like anything to be found in the pages of the Journal of Philosophy. Does it read to you like he’s holding an imaginary debate with Russell or Frege or Ramsey? It doesn’t to me, and at the very least I doubt that Wittgenstein intended his book to be exclusively for academic philosophers or even undergraduates. I think he left the academics to take care of themselves and turned his attention to intelligent laypeople who, like St Augustine 1500 years before, were at risk (by virtue of their very intelligence) of finding themselves in the grip of philosophical confusion.


  1. Philip - I think you are right that Wittgenstein chose Augustine as an intelligent layperson rather than a philosopher. The assumption that words are essentially names or labels is certainly tempting and it links to the broader temptation to see language is about making a picture of reality as if we were disembodied beings whose only concern was to draw an accurate picture. As Wittgenstein emphasises, we play all sorts of games with words, so one of the things wrong with Augustine's description is that it treats as unimportant the activities in which our words are embedded. We uses words as part of living, as part of trying to get things done!

  2. I agree. Im Anfang war die Tat!

  3. Also, I think the point about "as if we were disembodied beings..." is well put. I shall nick that!

  4. What is your definition of the "professional philosopher" if that category does not include as influential a thinker and theologian as Augustine of Hippo?

    True enough that W chooses to address the comments of a figure from the distant past rather than a direct peer or immediate predecessor in the philosophy "trade" - but Augustine is a pretty daunting example to pick on if he wanted to use an example of a "layman"!

    "Philosopher" appears on Augustine's CV quite often in the biogs I've seen...

  5. Graeme: a good point and one I rather glossed over in my post. "Philosopher" is a vague, wide-ranging term and in many senses of the word Augustine certainly was one. But he wasn't working in the "modern Western" tradition of philosophy and that's what I suppose I was referring to. Augustine was a brilliant theologian and his writings continue to be relevant in that area right down to the present day.

    However, he was never interested in the sorts of questions which have preoccupied modern philosophy (roughly, from Descartes onwards), eg: can we justify belief in the external world? What is knowledge? What is meaning? Etc.

    In the quoted passage, Augustine is not trying to outline a theory of meaning. And, in that sense, it is not philosophical writing and so (again, in that sense) he could be said to represent the "layperson".

    I'll admit, though, that I was half-consciously glossing over Wittgenstein's intellectual snobbery when I used the phrase "intelligent layperson". I suspect Wittgenstein's definition of "intelligent" was rather more demanding than the one you or I might use!

  6. Well done making the connection with 340: I'd just been thinking the same thing - I'll reference you, in due course, on this.