Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part III)

In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “The thoughts that I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition and sentence, … states of consciousness, and other things.”i Such a remark makes obvious, I hope, the ways in which Wittgenstein shares many of the same philosophical concerns as Augustine. Whether they share the same conclusions about these concerns, however, is another matter—namely, the present one.

As I tried to make clear in the second blog post, Augustine’s views about the purpose of language evolve throughout The Teacher; despite holding, prima facie, that language has a twofold purpose, by the conclusion of the dialogue he says that language’s purpose is singular—to remind. Wittgenstein, on the other hand—at least the Wittgenstein of the Investigations—, seems to utterly resist the notion that language has a singular purpose. Language, on his view, is infinitely complex; its uses are vast and variegated. People teach and remind, sure, but is that really all that we do with words? What of “Reporting an event – Speculating about the event … Making up a story; and reading one – Acting in a play – Singing rounds – Guessing riddles – Cracking a joke; telling one”?ii Are these all genuine instances of using words mnemonically?

Augustine might answer, “Well, yes; if we look closer at each of these aforementioned linguistic uses, we’ll find that each has a mnemonic function, that is, except for singing.” Recall here Augustine’s contention that singing is not a form of speech because it’s accompanied by melody. “But you notice, do you not, that what pleases you in singing is a certain melodious ordering of sound? Since this can be joined to words, or removed from them, is singing not one thing and speaking something else?”iii

But here, perhaps, Wittgenstein would push against Augustine’s rejoinder. This time, rather than disputing Augustine on the purpose of language, he might draw attention to the way in which “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”iv That language is part of a form of life means, inter alia, that it cannot be abstracted from its contexts of use without simultaneously losing its intelligibility. Wittgenstein gives the example of coming across a stand-alone sentence, which says: “‘After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before.’” Upon reading this sentence Wittgenstein asks himself a series of questions: “Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If it stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about.” He concludes: “But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it. (A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.”v This final comment is instructive: it elucidates the larger point that our words require contexts to be intelligible; even if there’s a standalone sentence (or word, or paragraph, or…) we come across—like the quotations that begin books or hang on placards—we’ll inevitably supply (or, “invent” in the words of W.) a context for that sentence, if it’s going to mean anything to us at all. The intonations that accompany our speech, the facial and bodily gestures we perform while speaking, the settings wherein we say this or that, the varying levels of familiarity we share with the person(s) we’re speaking to and with— such contexts enable understanding (and misunderstanding!). It’s not so simple, therefore, to abstract something like “melody” from our speech, as Augustine here so imagines. To suggest that we could somehow come to “pure speech” completely unadulterated by our contexts, that we could know the world independent of our words and the practices in which they live is to indulge chimera.

But doesn’t Augustine seem to grant Wittgenstein’s point about meaning and the centrality of contexts of use when he, for instance, repeatedly tells Adeodatus that prior to knowing the things to which words refer (name), words can neither teach us nor remind us of anything:

[I]t is by knowing the realities that we also come to a knowledge of their words, whereas, by the sounds of words, we do not even learn the words. For we cannot learn words we already know, and, as for those which we do not know, we cannot profess to have learned them until we have seen their meaning. And this comes about, not by hearing the sounds they make, but from a knowledge of the realities they

Augustine, The Teacher

Without prior knowledge of the realities to which words name, there is no meaning. Knowledge of the realities themselves establishes the necessary context for linguistic meaning. Additionally, Augustine argues that, for meaning to occur, we often need things like gestures to accompany our speech. Pointing, for example, helps us communicate to others something about the concrete reality of which we might be speaking; sometimes it’s even the doing of a thing itself that helps us understand what that thing is; e.g., you want to knowing what “dancing” is, so I dance. This therefore shows that Augustine rightly understands the necessity of “contexts” for linguistic meaning, and sufficiently answers Wittgenstein’s qualms. Right?

Wrong. There remains a key issue in Augustine’s theory of naming and conception of meaning. According to Augustine, all words are nouns because all words name things.vii This picture of meaning requires that one know the reference to which a given word refers. This means that our knowledge of a thing—or, let’s make this more grandiose: our knowledge of the world is separable from our language.

The problem with Augustine’s picture of meaning here on display in The Teacher is, therefore, in many ways the same that emerges in Confessions: Augustine posits a gap between a word and a thing; or, to paraphrase literary critic Toril Moi, he divides up the word from the world. On this view, then, philosophy is tasked with bridging the gap between our words and the world; the philosopher must find the connection, the essence, between a word and its object. The solution for bridging the gap, according to Augustine in both The Teacher and Confessions, ultimately comes through naming; by naming, our words get connected to the world, and therefore become meaningful. But this whole “picture of language,” in the words of Moi, “is not so much wrong, as too simple and too circumscribed.”viii Or, as Wittgenstein writes: “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”ix

In contrast to this picture of a word/world gap, Wittgenstein talks about human knowledge of the world as intimately bound up in and with our words. He compares language speaking to gameplay, as if it were “part of an activity, or of a form of life”x (think here of his famous “language games” designation). His reasoning for this is clear: “words and action, talking and doing, are intertwined.”xi Words are meaningful in our use of them in this or that activity. And naming is but one activity amongst a host of others, and it’s an incredibly complex activity at that!

All well and good, but this just scratches the surface of the larger issue that a speculative Wittgensteinian view presents for Augustine’s picture of linguistic meaning. The bigger problem with Augustine picture of meaning is that it tempts us to go looking within ourselves to establish meaning. This is the insidious idea of “the private language,” the idea that somehow, some way, we can think, mean, yea, understand the world and ourselves prior to language acquisition. In the words of Philip Porter: “Augustine’s move is to identify his pre-verbal self as a human capable of thinking and meaning something to himself alone, just not yet able to express this meaning to others.”xii This view is not just philosophically bankrupt; it’s theologically and spiritually dangerous, for it ultimately establishes me, the individual subject, as the ultimate authority of truth. Not only that, but it reifies and deifies the hidden and the private. If I can know, think, mean, and understand something to myself, by myself, prior to any form of language acquisition and involvement with the world, then I’m not actually human; I am a god.


i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, et al (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 3.

ii Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

iii Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

iv Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

v Ibid., §525.

vi Augustine, The Teacher, 49.

vii See, e.g., Ibid., 52.

viii Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 28.

ix Wittgenstein, PI, §3.

x Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

xi Moi, Revolution, 45.

xii Philip Porter, “Inheriting Wittgenstein’s Augustine,” New Blackfriars (2018), 18.

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.