Wittgenstein and Augustine on language, meaning, and understanding: A speculative proposal (Part I)

When writing anything important—whether an email, a text, a lesson plan, an essay, a blogpost—there’s perhaps nothing more difficult than knowing where to begin. It should hardly surprise us therefore to learn that even a great mind like Ludwig Wittgenstein struggled immensely to begin his famous Philosophical Investigations—affectionately known by his devotees as “the Investigations.” According to theologian Fergus Kerr, knowing how to begin the Investigations “preoccupied Wittgenstein for many years.”i Now Kerr’s claim may be exaggerated, but it’s nonetheless telling: when writing the Investigations, the beginning mattered for Wittgenstein, and rightfully so, for what he would say at the start of the work would inevitably determine all that would follow.

It’s no accident then that Wittgenstein chose to begin the Investigations by quoting a figure who needs no introduction in the West. That figure is Saint Augustine of Hippo. As for his quote, well, it needs no real introduction either: for despite being casually written with the putative intention of expressing a reflective, but nonetheless passing observation of a juvenile’s emerging first-person awareness and incipient communicative skills, the remark has since been taken by many as a full-fledged account of language, meaning, and understanding. Augustine writes:

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. This, however, I gathered from their gestures, the natural languages of all peoples, the language that by means of facial expression and the play of eyes, of the movements of the limbs and tones of voice, indicates the affections of the soul when it desires, or clings to, or rejects, or recoils from, something. In this way, little by little, I learnt to understand what things the words, which I heard uttered in their respective places in various sentences, signified. And once I got my tongue around these signs, I used them to express my wishes.ii

Augustine, Confessions

That so many have, in my estimation, misread this account as Augustine’s exhaustive philosophical account of language, meaning, and understanding is something of an injustice; a literary one to be sure, and thus perhaps a minor one, but an injustice all the same. But so it goes with writing and all forms of communication: all communication is liable to abuse and misunderstanding. Whenever we write, whenever we speak, whenever we gesture, we take a risk. It’s why writing anything at all is difficult. It’s also why it matters that we try to get it right. It’s precisely why the beginning of the Investigations mattered so deeply to Wittgenstein. He wanted to get it right.

And thus the question arises: Why did Wittgenstein begin his work with Augustine? According to the American philosopher Norman Malcom: “[Wittgenstein] revered the writings of St Augustine. He told me he decided to begin his Investigations with a quotation from the latter’s Confessions, not because he could not find the comment stated as well by other philosophers, but because the conception must be important if so great a mind held it.”iii Malcom’s comment is instructive: Wittgenstein admired Augustine, and, contrary to popular reception of the Investigations, he had no desire to dismiss, or even “attack” (to put it in somewhat colloquial terms) the saint’s so-called positions; for all Wittgenstein’s whipping boys (a certain scene with a poker and Karl Popper comes to mind)—well, Augustine was just not one of them. Rather for Wittgenstein, the problem with “Augustine’s picture of how he learned language as a child,” writes literary critic Toril Moi, “is not so much wrong as premature: only someone who already knows what it means to point, and what it is to name something, will be able to follow such instructions.”iv Moi’s point about Wittgenstein’s use of Augustine in the Investigations seems textually indisputable (see PI §4; cf., §32). Augustine’s account is missing something important, and Wittgenstein wants to improve upon it. And since it is Augustine in question, the need to get it right is consequentially momentous.

But does Wittgenstein get it right? Does he, in other words, dramatically improve upon Augustine in the way so many imagine? Does he lead us out of the tenebrous Augustinian cave?

Well… kind of, but not totally. It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s improvement on Augustine is in a certain way insufficient. I say that not because the Wittgensteinian improvement is inherently deficient (it’s not—I’ll argue to the death that it’s not), but rather because it has unwittingly reduced the contributions of one of the most prolific authors in Western history—the Doctor Gratia, the author of the modern autobiography, the greatest theologian of the West (debate me all ye Thomists!)­­­­—to a mere passage. And so it goes that the readers of the Investigations can now say: “Augustine’s picture of language” or the “Augustinian picture of language,” as if that somehow encapsulates all that Augustine had to say about language. Ah, what a shame. I mentioned literary injustices earlier, and now look where we are: we’re back.

Few have written more than Augustine, and few have had a more omnivorous mind than he. Which means, for one, that even when he’s wrong, he’s interestingly so (a point Wittgenstein knew well enough); but two—and this is what’s important—it means that he probably wrote more on language, meaning, and understanding than a mere passage or two. And he did, of course—as theologian Fergus Kerr writes: “It is not clear whether Wittgenstein knew how much more complicated Augustine’s theory of language was: whether, for example, he had read the De Magistro.”v You see, it’s Wittgenstein’s unfamiliarity with the complexity of De Magistro (Eng. The Teacher), his unfamiliarity with the complexity of Augustine’s thoughts on language, meaning understanding, that leads me to say that his improvement on Augustine is insufficient.

But in Wittgenstein’s defense: who really can read the entire oeuvre of a man like Augustine? Life is short, and there’s far more important work to be done. Wittgenstein’s beginning is therefore forgivable. Which means perhaps we can all say, “Wittgenstein, as much effort and time as you put into thinking about how to begin your magisterial Philosophical Investigations, though it may be inadequate, it’s commendable, and we thank thee.”

Eh, that’s boring. It’s also intellectually lazy. Instead, let’s do something far more interesting. Let’s speculate for a moment about what Wittgenstein would have thought about Augustine’s more extensive treatment of language, meaning, and understanding in The Teacher had he chosen to read it. Now that would be interesting. It would also help us say something more definitive about Wittgenstein’s choice to begin with Augustine in the Investigations.

So, let’s begin there.

i Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 2nd ed (London: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1997), 38.

ii Augustine. Confessions, Book I.8; taken from the English translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations, 4th edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 5.

iii Norman Malcom. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 59; taken from Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 39.

iv Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 33.

v Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 56 n 1.

Author: Hayden Hagerman

Hayden Hagerman is a servant of the church and a student of the academy. In other words, Hayden is a seminarian. His theological and academic interests converge upon a central theme: recovering and (re)discovering the church’s peculiar story as the Body of Christ in the world. How the church lives out her story through her historic and contemporary relationship with Judaism, her creedal and theological interpretation of Scripture, and her ongoing liturgical and sacramental practices are the present subjects of inquiry for Hayden. In addition to his studies, Hayden is also the host of "Practicing Peace," an interview-based podcast that spotlights contemporary practitioners of messianic peace.