What picture of language, meaning, and understanding do we have on display in Augustine’s The Teacher? Perhaps a summary of The Teacher is best for answering that question.
The Teacher takes the form of a dialogue between Augustine and his sixteen-year old son, Adeodatus. The work is one of Augustine’s earliest, a fact he makes plain in Book IX of Confessions, wherein he reminiscences fondly about his late son.
i The purpose for the dialogue is not immediately discernible. It begins by focusing on the problem between human speaker and his relation to signs and language, but it soon “quite logically leads to a consideration of the origin of man’s intellectual knowledge,” as translator of the dialogue Robert P. Russell observes.ii Knowing that later generations will read his works, like The Teacher, and undoubtedly struggle to understand them, Augustine writes at the end of his life Retractions. Retractions, despite its name, is not simply a collection of retractions and improvements on previous statements; it’s also an interpretive guide to the works of Augustine from the man himself. It’s in Retractions that he discloses to us the purpose of The Teacher, saying: “During this same period I composed a book called The Teacher where, after some discussion and inquiry, we find that it is God alone who teaches men knowledge, all of which is also in accord with what is written in the Gospel: ‘One is your teacher, Christ.’”iii The goal of the work therefore is twofold: to discover where human knowledge comes from (Christ), and to evoke trust in the source of that knowledge.
The dialogue begins with Augustine asking Adeodatus a series of probing questions about the purpose of spoken language. After a quick back-and-forth (which becomes characteristic of the work as a whole), Adeodatus concludes, under his father’s guidance, that the purpose of spoken language is twofold: to teach and to remind. Yet, Adeodatus still has some reservations about this understanding of language, particularly as it relates to the examples of song and prayer. Singing, for example, has nothing to do with teaching or reminding; people seem, more often than not, to sing because they simply find pleasure and solace in it. Augustine grants this point, but suggests that songs have no relation to teaching or reminding because, properly speaking, they do not constitute verbal speech. His distinction is ingenious: songs necessarily require melody for their operation; melody is independent of verbal speech (e.g., humming, playing an instrument, etc.); therefore, singing does not qualify as verbal speech. Adeodatus concedes to his father, but argues for an exception: prayer. Adedoatus would willingly concede to Augustine’s account of the purpose of language “were it not for the difficulty that, in praying, we are actually speaking, and yet it is not right to believe that God is taught anything by us, or that we recall something in His mind.”iv In reply, Augustine says that prayer, properly understood, does not require language. Instead, he argues, true and authentic prayer is always inarticulate. True prayer occurs within the interior part of the human; it arises within the heart or “inner chamber,” where the Lord wishes to dwell (cf., Mt 6:6). This is not to deny, of course, that prayer can be spoken; but, when it is spoken, it is “in order that men may hear and, by this verbal reminder, fix their thoughts upon God by a unity of heart and mind.”v Prayer, therefore, is not a species of spoken language. If it were, then it would necessarily teach or remind, just as all spoken language does.
After establishing spoken language’s twofold purpose, Augustine then asks Adeodatus if he agrees that words function as signs for things (or, “realities” as he elsewhere calls them). His son responds affirmatively. Yet, after challenging him to define the realities to which the words nihil and si respectively refer, neither Augustine nor Adeodatus is able to provide an account. They briefly wonder about how such words can be so readily understood and yet not refer to anything at all, but Augustine quickly drops the issue, telling his son that nihil and si must in the end refer to inner states of the mind, which are unobservable. Subsequently, he asks Adeodatus to name the reality to which the preposition ex refers. After trying to define ex by means of another preposition (de) Augustine stops Adeodatus, saying: “I am not asking you to substitute one familiar word for another equally familiar… I am looking for the one thing itself, whatever it is, which is signified by these two signs.”vi Observing that they may have reached a dead end, Adeodatus and Augustine conclude that there must be certain realities that can only be defined ostensively; e.g., pointing at an object. Gestures and bodily movements, therefore, function as signs in the same way that words do.
But words and gestures can also signify other signs, according to Augustine; they do not always name things. He says, “there are signs that manifest signs, and signs that manifest things that are not signs.” Moreover, there are even things that “can be manifested without signs.”vii In this latter case, human beings perform certain activities that simply manifest the thing/reality itself, without having further need to provide signs. For example, if someone were to ask another what dancing is, she could simply respond by dancing, and thereby demonstrate the thing itself. From this discussion, Augustine deduces that there must be a “three-fold division of signs”viii: signs that refer to other signs, signs that names things, and things which require no sign at all.ix Augustine and Adeodatus soon set out to investigate each of these sign groups; and through a series of difficult questions, they learn that this first group of signs can be further subdivided into two. The first subgroup comprises signs that “cannot be signified by those signs which they signify,”x an example being the word “conjunction.” “Conjunction” names things such as “and,” “or,” “for,” etc. Yet in naming these words, “conjunction” is not reciprocally named. The second group, on the other hand, comprises signs that can be reciprocally signified. Augustine gives the example of “word” and “noun.” Through a long, and rather tedious, argument, Augustine contends that all words (i.e., all parts of speech) are, on closer examination, nouns. Since each word names a thing, each word is, by definition, a noun. The only difference between “words” and “nouns” is cosmetic—“words come from ‘striking’, and nouns from ‘knowing’, so that the former has earned its name because of the ear, the latter, because of the mind.”xi
Augustine continues his reflection on signs, moving the discussion toward the latter two subgroups (viz., signs that name things, and things manifested without signs). Concerning the countless examples of this third subgroup (i.e., things signified without signs), Augustine says: “For, apart from the numerous plays performed in every theater by actors who play their part by enacting the events themselves, without using signs, does not God, as well as nature, exhibit and manifest to the view of all, and just as they are, the sun and the light which covers and clothes all the things around us…?”xii From the second subgroup, Augustine argues that we learn the relative unimportance of words. Since words are mere signs for realities, “the realities signified are to be valued more highly than their signs.”xiii And thus Augustine says: “[T]he most I can say for words is that they merely intimate that we should look for realities; they do not present them to us for our knowledge.”xiv This admission leads Augustine to conclude that his earlier account of the purpose of language was wrong: words serve only mnemonic functions, not didactic ones. On his view, words can evoke in the mind of the hearer a recollection of the reality they name, but they can never improve upon the knowledge of the hearer. This is because words are only meaningful insofar as one already knows the things to which they refer. Without such prior knowledge, words are utterly meaningless. Augustine says: “So by means of words we learn only words, or better, the sound and noise of words. For if something cannot be a word unless it is a sign, I still cannot recognize it as a word until I know what it signifies, even though I have heard the word… It is perfectly logical and true to conclude that whenever words are spoken, we either know what they mean or we do not.”xv Words, therefore, are mere mnemonic devices.
Admitting that words carry no didactic function, but serve only mnemonic purposes, naturally leads Augustine to conclude that understanding is fundamentally something that occurs within the individual’s mind. He says: “But as for all those things which we ‘understand,’ it is not the outward sound of the speaker’s words that we consult, but the truth which presides over the mind itself from within, though we may have been led to consult it because of the words.”xvi But this raises the question, “Does this inner consultation not ultimately suggest that the individual is his or her own teacher?” Augustine anticipates this question, and responds to it by arguing that the true inner person the individual consults is not himself or herself, but rather the Lord. He says: “Now He who is consulted and who is said to ‘dwell in the inner man,’ He it is who teaches us, namely, Christ, that is to say, ‘the unchangeable Power of God and everlasting wisdom.’ This is the Wisdom which every rational soul does indeed consult.”xvii No one, therefore, can claim to teach others by means of his or her words—“For he is being taught, not by my words, but by the realities themselves made manifest to him by the enlightening action of God from within.”xviii By divine illumination, the Lord grants understanding to the individual.
The Teacher concludes with Adeodatus summarizing all that he has learned throughout the discussion. First, under the guidance of his father, he has learned that words serve only mnemonic functions; their role is to stimulate the hearer to recall and reflect internally upon the realities to which words name.xix Second, and most importantly, he has learned that understanding is ultimately and finally a divine miracle. He says: “But as to the truth of what is said, I have also learned that He alone teaches who made use of external words to remind us that He dwells within us.”xx The real purpose of language, therefore, is ultimately theological: to trust in the Lord, the one who alone grants understanding to humankind.
i “There is a book of mine, entitled The Teacher. It is a dialogue between Adeodatus and me, and you know that all things there put into the mouth of my interlocutor are his, though he was then only in his sixteenth year. Many other gifts even more wonderful I found in him. His talent was a source of awe to me” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 9.6.14, trans. Albert C. Outler [New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007], 135).
ii Robert P. Russell, “Introduction,” in Saint Augustine, The Teacher (De Magistro) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1968), 4.
iii Saint Augustine, Retractions, 1.12; cited in Russell, “Introduction,” 3.
iv Augustine, The Teacher, 8.
v Augustine, The Teacher, 9.
vi Ibid., 11-12.
vii Augustine, The Teacher, 31.
viii Ibid., 16.
ix Augustine does not explain why he has included this third group into the category of signs.
x Augustine, The Teacher, 31.
xi Ibid., 22.
xii Augustine, The Teacher, 46.
xiii Ibid., 38.
xiv Ibid., 48.
xvi Augustine, The Teacher, 51.
xviii Ibid., 54.
xix Ibid., 60.
xx Ibid., 60-61.