Discuss and evaluate Wittgenstein’s critique of the Augustinian picture

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Discuss and evaluate Wittgenstein’s critique of the Augustinian picture
The picture of language put forward by Augustine’s Confessions is one of a collection of elements (names), each relating to some object in the real world. He suggests that when these elements are composed in a logical fashion and uttered they can be used to express inner desires to others around us. Augustine seems to find the idea that language can be compared to some kind of precise calculus an intuitive one, as most people do naturally. Wittgenstein feels that it is wrong to attempt to remove names from their everyday applications and that meaning can only be ascertained through looking at use. In this essay I will discuss Wittgenstein’s various criticisms of the Augustinian picture and go on to argue that Wittgenstein is rightly trying to undermine a deep seated false picture that lies at the root of much of modern philosophy of language.
In Wittgenstein’s text, the Philosophical Investigations (PI), he uses a quote from Augustine’s Confessions as his opening passage in the work:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
(PI 1)
Wittgenstein chooses this seemingly rather odd choice of passage for very precise and deliberate reasons. This passage demonstrates the universality of the temptation for us to theorise about language in this way, to remove words from their application and to look at them in an abstract and non-spatial, non-temporal plane. The fact that there is no supporting argument put forward for this picture of language shows just how impulsively we theorise about language in this way, and the more impulsively something comes to us the less likely we are to question the validity of it. Wittgenstein thinks our natural impulse to theorise in this way is rooted in language itself and the logical structure of it. He talks about our urge to “penetrate phenomena” and to break them apart into their component pieces in order to understand them. Wittgenstein himself fell into this trap in his own early work, the Tractatus, in which he tried to create a theory of what language’s ability to represent the world consists in. Although this scientific and approach is useful and the correct one for many problems that we encounter, it is simply the wrong approach for a philosophy of language. According to Wittgenstein, part of the meaning of a word is determined from the situation in which it is embedded. Therefore any theory of language which removes words from their use must surely be an inaccurate one.
One of the first examples Wittgenstein uses in order to criticise the Augustinian picture is a very simple and quite subtle one. He imagines a language in which a person goes into a shop and hands the shopkeeper a slip of paper which reads “five red apples”. The shopkeeper then opens a draw with the word “apples” printed on it, looks at a colour chart finding the word “red” with a sample next to it and then counts up to five taking out one apple with each number. This example is engineered simply to draw attention to the way language is actually used in a practical day to day manner. It is not abstracted from its use. Augustine suggests that language is a means for us to convey our inner desires, or our states of mind to others. Wittgenstein thinks that in this case the customer is not expressing an inner desire or state of mind to the shopkeeper, they are simply using language as a tool to bring about a certain response in an interlocutor. In one sense I feel that Augustine is correct in saying that we use language in order to express our desires to others, in this case the customer is indirectly expressing the inner desire to eat because he is hungry. I think Wittgenstein is completely aware of what Augustine means when he says this, but uses this example to show that the correct way to approach language is to look at it functioning. If in this example we accept that the purpose of language is to bring about a response from an interlocutor for a practical purpose we are not tempted to pose questions about the essence of meaning, as meaning is simply use.
Another example that Wittgenstein uses is that of a simple language employed by a tribe of builders. The language consists of the words “Block!”, “Pillar!”, “Slab!”, “Beam!”. Children in the tribe must learn how to respond to these words and how to use them in the process of building. In the Augustinian picture children learn the names of objects by ostensive definition, presumably once they have learnt the name of a certain object hearing that name will conjure up an image of that object in their mind. In the case of the tribe of builders if someone says “Block!” the person they utter it to is required to go and fetch a block and bring it to them. When they say “Block!” the purpose of the phrase is not to conjure up an image of a block in your mind (although this may happen) but to bring about a certain response in you, I.e. to go and fetch a block and bring it back. Surely ostensive definition is therefore only a part of the process of learning, other factors and methods must come in to play. Wittgenstein’s example here also brings into view the notion of understanding and what we take it to be. In the Augustinian picture it seems to be nothing more than the conjuring of a mental image of a certain object or possible state of affairs. In Wittgenstein’s view of language as a spatial and temporal life-form, a practical tool in the living of our day to day lives, surely understanding cannot simply consist in a mental image. If the purpose of a phrase or sentence is to bring about a response in an interlocutor whether they have understood is simply judged by whether they respond outwardly in the correct way. For an analogy of this consider someone experiencing physical pain, we know they are experiencing pain from their outward reaction to it. We know what the outward reaction to pain is like because we have a shared participation in life, and physical pain is quite a common occurrence in life.
I will now go into further detail of Wittgenstein’s criticism of the idea that language is taught purely by ostensive definition. Firstly, one vital assumption made by Augustine is that as children we already understand the process of naming. Just because we understand this process now after mastering language does not necessarily mean that we always understood this process. The further short comings of this theory become immediately apparent when you consider the whole spectrum of language, not just the names of specific objects. For example how would one teach words such as “this” or “there” by ostensive definition? The concept of ostensive definition tends to suggest that every word has some kind of essence of meaning, it tends to abstract language and remove it from its everyday use. This tempts us to ask questions such as “What is the meaning of ‘5’?”. Wittgenstein thinks that going down this route will only lead to further confusion and problems. If we instead consider language as a practical tool in our lives, we don’t have to ask these questions as meaning is simply defined as the purpose of the words we use, the kind of response we wish them to bring about in an interlocutor. Wittgenstein also questions the power of ostensive definition in teaching a wider range of words, beyond simple names of objects. For example how can simply gesturing towards an object signify a certain property of that object which you are trying to describe? Consider a square poster on a wall which is blue in colour, how can you show by gesture whether you are referring to its shape or its colour when you utter a sound?. Furthermore, how can we know that a child has understood something taught by ostensive definition? Perhaps with objects they can be said to understand when they make the correct sound and gesture towards the object, but this does not really show any understanding of how to apply the word in a practical way. If understanding is shown by the outward reaction of a person then it follows that ostensive definition is only part of the complex process by which we learn to master language.
Wittgenstein’s main and most important criticism of the Augustinian picture is that it removes language from its use and abstracts it. He thinks that the essence of meaning comes from the particular context and usage of a word rather than an innate meaning somehow fixed to the word. I think he clearly displays that this is the case and that the Augustinian picture was extremely over simplified and ignored the richness and complexity of language and how it is used. Language is embedded deeply into our culture and our lives, it is in some sense a life form in its own right.

  1. McGinn, M., Routeledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, (London, 1997)

  2. Kenny, A., The Wittgenstein Reader, (Blackwell, 1994)

  3. Backer, G.P. & Hacker, P.M.S, Wittgenstein: Meaning and Understanding Vol., (Blackwell, 1980)

  4. Thornton, T., Wittgenstein on Language and Thought, (Edinburgh, 1998)

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