Philosophical Investigations opens with a quote from
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) St Augustine
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
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. St Augustine
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